Debbra at Weeki Wachee Spring

IN 1953 MY FAMILY MOVED from Ohio To Florida; I was eight years old. We were exploring tourist attractions and went to Weeki Wachee Spring, the home of live mermaids. After watching the underwater performance, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the “underwater Grand Canyon,” as the spring is known, and the beautiful athletes that seemed so at home 16 feet below the surface. I told my family that I would “be one of those girls someday.”

The name Weeki Wachee is a Seminole word meaning “Little Spring” or “Winding River.” Of the 700 springs in Florida, Weeki Wachee is a prime example. The Spring is the surfacing point of a huge underground river. It measures 100 feet across and has been explored to the depths of 400 feet. Divers still have not found the bottom of the body of water that pumps out 170 million gallons of water at a constant temperature of 74.2 degrees, every 24 hours.

In 1946, a man named Newton Perry, who had been a frogman and swimming instructor in the U.S. Navy, conceived the idea of staying underwater and breathing through an air hose supplied with air by a compressor. The first underwater show was seen by the public on October 13, 1947, making Weeki Wachee one of the oldest natural attractions in Florida.

Debbra Kaukfman worked as a mermaid at Weeki Wachee Spring in Florida in the 1960s

Ten years after my first visit to the Spring, I was 18 years old and applied for a job as a mermaid. I had always loved the water; I learned to swim in Lake Erie and had taken water ballet classes. I was hired in 1963, and worked at Weeki Wachee fot hree wonderful years. I trained for six weeks, learning how to hose breathe and to eat bananas and drink grape soda underwater. Drinking underwater is one of the most difficult things to learn—you take a breath from your air hose and blow it all into the bottle which forces the liquid into your mouth. I drank so many grape sodas trying to complete my training–I think that is why I prefer white wine today!

Debbra (front) rode a bike underwater; the bike was attached to a cable above and the performers could actually pedal it!

The underwater shows had lots of props, costumes and music and were choreographed by Marilyn and Jack Nagle, a professional dance team from New York City. “Alice in Waterland” and “The Wizard of Oz” were two of my favorite shows. We entered the water through an underwater tube—like a sewer pipe. It led to an underwater air lock that held two to three people. There we would wait for the show to start, listening for the music cues. There were usually five girls swimming per show, we were graded at each show and if you didn’t perform exactly as expected, you were back in the water on your free time, relearning the routine.

To become a full-fledged mermaid, you had to complete a deep dive into the boil of the spring, 112 feet deep. When you arrived at that depth, you either put a mermaid tail on or took one off, depending on the storyline of the show. Once you had the tail on, you would pull on your air hose to signal the mermaid spotter above, she would pull your hose up and we would drift up and perform ballet. The head mermaid would time us to see how long we could hold our breath. My best time was three and a half minutes. I can remember performing the deep dive at night shows and seeing a full moon reflect off the water above me—what a magical sight it was! I still dream about it.

Weeki Wachee is a state park now and the rules have changed. There is no tube to enter the water, no deep diveand only three shows a day instead of six. The mermaids now wear two-piece bathing suits, which was unheard of back in the day! Mermaids are not “show girls” but some of the worlds most accomplished athletes. I am honored to have been a part of this history. I have stayed in touch with the girls I lived and swam with, and have attended many mermaid reunions. We affectionately refer to one another as “mersisters.” When we talk about being in the water and the taste, smell and feel of the Spring, it is with a reverence that borders on spiritual. We worked as a team to make each show we performed not only beautiful, but safe. Our lives depended on each other. We could always depend on those three little words—”I’ve got you.” Another slogan we shared is “Once a mermaid, always a mermaid.”

Women who worked as mermaids affectionately to each other as “mersisters.” They depended on one another while doing complicated routines underwater.

Little did I know that in 2006 I would join another Sisterhood called P.E.O. and what a blessing it has been in my life! My dear friend, Dorie Rorich, invited me to join Chapter BF, Hendersonville, North Carolina, and I will be eternally grateful for that invitation. I have served in every office except recording secretary, and as president of my chapter for two years. My daughter received a P.E.O. Program for Continuing Education grant and was invited to speak at North Carolina State Convention. P.E.O. has a heartfelt way of expressing a loving concern for us all. Once a P.E.O., always a P.E.O.!

The author, Debbra Kaufman, in 2023

Article Info


Debbra Kaufman, BF, Hendersonville, North Carolina



Article Type

Special Feature

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