By Cindy Lane
sun staff writer
HOLMES BEACH Who better to teach aquatic aerobics
than a scuba diver, synchronized swimmer and mermaid?
Former Weeki Wachee Springs mermaid Beverly Orchard has
taught a no-tails-required water aerobics class for 10
years at the Manatee Family YMCA in Bradenton, where she
is the active older adult/wellness director.
"Swimming has been my world," said the 68-year-old
Holmes Beach resident, who spent a year as a mermaid at
the theme park near Brooksville in 1956, during the heyday
of one of her heroes, aquatic movie actress Esther Williams.
"She was there to make a movie just before I got
there," Orchard said, adding that the tourist attraction
built a platform for Williams to dive into the 72.4-degree
The water was chilly, but nothing like Lake Michigan,
where Orchard swam as a Chicago kid. She learned to swim
at age 7, then competed until her teen years, the age
when girls swimming competitions dried up.
It was uncommon for sports competitions to include teenage
girls then, said the former gymnast, adding, "We
were the ones who paved the way."
While in college in Illinois, Orchard answered an ad to
audition for the mermaid show in Florida over Christmas
break, and only went back long enough to finish up the
The dress code for mermaids in the 50s didnt include
the tail thats familiar to todays visitors,
although she wore one in 1997 at a mermaid reunion. The
swimmers wore dive flippers and learned to use hoses to
breathe, sometimes holding their breath for up to two
Most of the mermaids stayed within 12 feet of the surface,
but those who dove to 100 feet during the show had to
recover in a decompression chamber. They were cued when
it was time to come out and join the group for the finale,
"Its like flying over a mountain" swimming
over the deep part of the spring, she said. "It took
my breath away."
Sometimes men would jump into the spring and chase the
mermaids during the show, she said. The girls would turn
their air hoses up all the way and hand them to the unwary
intruders, who would get too much air and cough all the
way to the surface.
The spring itself posed another difficulty. The strong
current from the springs boil pushed the mermaids
to the surface when they tried to maintain still poses,
Orchard recalled. Theyd wedge themselves in some
rocks to stay still and bang a rod on the rocks to scare
away unwanted catfish.
Other spring dwellers became part of the show, such as
the turtles that the mermaids dressed in ballet skirts.
Gators never attacked the mermaids, Orchard said, but
theyd swim into the scene occasionally, and someone
would hammer on the aquarium glass to let the girls know
it was time to get out.
Underwater speakers hadnt been invented yet, so
the mermaids couldnt hear warnings, music or anything
else, Orchard said. They experimented with putting speakers
in the water, careful not to let the wires get submerged.
"Its a wonder we didnt get electrocuted,"
Underwater photography was also in its infancy, and she
recalls taking a Brownie camera into the spring in a plastic
bag to experiment. Orchard later became an accomplished
underwater photographer when she began scuba diving with
her husband, an Illinois dive shop owner.
She recalls posing for photos with baseball players in
Florida for spring training. Weeki Wachee required high
moral character from its mermaids and chaperoned them.
"We were good girls," she said, a disappointment
to players looking for spring flings.
When her mermaid days ended, she majored in health and
physical education at a YMCA college in Illinois, and
has spent much of her career with the Y.
The mother of two also was a synchronized swimmer in Canada,
in the days when the sport was more graceful and less
sharp than the modern Olympic sport, she said.
She also dived with "Jaws" author Peter Benchley
in San Salvador, attracting fish for him to photograph
by talking to them, presumably in mermaid language, and
also has dived off Jamaica, the Bahamas and Cancun as
well as lakes in Illinois and Wisconsin.
Now, shes waiting for retirement to take a refresher
dive course and enjoy more underwater adventures.
Meanwhile, theres the Y pool, but its just
not the same. Its shallow, to accommodate students
who dont swim, but who want to enjoy the benefits
of the low-impact water exercise she teaches.
"I long to dive in," she said.