Beauty, humor, quirkiness and other ethereal charms come to mind when we see Florida’s famous mermaids on a postcard. Weeki Wachee Mermaids: Thirty Years of Underwater Photography, by Lu Vickers and Bonnie Georgiadis, captures the mermaids’ unique virtues — and the pictures that immortalize them — taking us underwater with the beloved Florida icons.
As most know, Weeki Wachee mermaids still perform daily in an underwater theater at the quaint attraction 56 miles northwest of Tampa. But the finny gals had their heyday in the mid-20th century. Pre-Mickey Mouse and Disney’s attendant theme park revolution, the mermaids modeled for print advertisements, and even appeared in movies and on TV.
Advertisers and publications asked the gals to go to perilous lengths to capture a shot. Trained to stay underwater for extended periods of time and pose in costumes that felt heavy or constricting, the mermaids carried out their difficult instructions with a smile.
“Little did newsapers know, the fun shots were often overshadowed by fear,” says mermaid Vicki Smith in one of the book’s anecdotes.
In the book’s stunning photographs, va-va-voom beauty complements an artful use of black-and-white or richly vivid postcard color, in addition to man-made scenes and humorously fish-out-of-water poses. Weeki Wachee Mermaids is not just a historical picture book; it’s a fascinating study in the possibilities of photographic composition.
“The photos capture the imagination and perfection of the Weeki Wachee mermaids just the way the performances do,” Vickers said in an email to CL. “They allow us to believe in the impossible.”
More to the point, Vickers said, they capture the mermaids in stillness, a look they accomplished while holding their breath underwater and appearing as though they are on land — save for a few bubbles and seaweed plants.
Vickers, an expert on the attaction’s history and author of Weeki Wachee, City of Mermaids: A History of One of Florida’s Oldest Roadside Attractions, provides interesting historic tidbits in the book’s introduction.
“We had hundreds of vintage photographs, but we could only submit 100,” Vickers told CL. … “Bonnie and I sailed through the editorial process; we weren’t asked to cut our pieces. The press asked Gary Monroe (The Highwaymen) and Tim Hollis (who has written multiple books on Florida’s roadside attractions) to provide us with feedback. They were generous and offered suggestions that improved our work.”
At first, the text reads like a history book with a chronological narration, but loosens up midway into a mostly fun hodgepodge of anecdotes, offering sparse connections to the photos selected, and little to no background on some — like the cover shot taken by famed photographer Toni Frisell in 1947.
The mermaid stories provide the livelier moments. Former mermaid Georgiadis adds oomph that’s not watered down — pun intended. She was in seventh grade in 1947 when Weeki Wachee opened, and the water was “clear as air” — so much so that when mermaids Nancy Tribble Benda and Sis Meyers performed, they appeared to be “floating in air.”
Georgiadis also talks about learning to eat a banana and drink a bottle of Grapette underwater.
“During the show the girls pretend to burp after downing a whole bottle of carbonated soda. Half the time they’re not acting. Those burps are real.”
“The Weeki Wachee mermaids are iconic for a reason,” Vickers said. “No one else in the world does what they do — they perform underwater in a Florida spring.”
Weeki Wachee Mermaids: Thirty Years of Underwater Photography, University of Florida Press, 2012, upf.com.