Holidays with the mermaids who protect our environment

Professor Michael Lueck and Dr Brooke Porter say mermaids (and mermen) are real and they work hard to entertain us and preserve our marine environment.

The release this month of a live-action version of The Little Mermaid will add to our fascination with these mythical creatures.

Loosely based on the original Hans Christian Andersen tale, a 2019 movie, directed by Richard Curtis and starring Chloe Grace Moretz, is also scheduled.

Expect to see even more mermaid-themed leggings and blankets, toys, souvenirs, underwear and even pet costumes flooding the market as mermaid fever consumes old and young.

Mermaids have trended through popular culture with movies such as Splash (1984) and Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) capturing the imagination.

Though mermaids (and mermen) have a lengthy history as mystical figures, they first became a tourist attraction in 1947 when the Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show began in Florida, US.

Until recently, mermaid tourism or mer-tourism was passive — tourists were restricted to watching mermaid performances. In 2012 though, mermaid tourism developed into an active tourist activity, with the opening of the first school, the Philippine Mermaid Swimming Academy in Boracay.

Today there are mermaid schools on five continents. New Zealand has its own, Mount MerSwim in Mount Maunganui.

When you talk about mermaid schools, the initial reaction is “are you serious?”, or “does that exist?” and “What could you possibly learn at a mermaid school?”

Well, yes, we are serious and, yes, they do exist.

Offers range from photo opportunities — where you are on the beach, dressed up as a mermaid, and the instructor takes photos of you posing as a mermaid — through to multi-day courses. The latter, which are physically challenging, may include lessons on tail etiquette, safety, mermaid swim strokes, mermaid makeup tutorials, and breath-holding techniques. For certified scuba divers, scuba sessions, including mermaid tail, dive gear and boat rental, are available.

Gender boundaries are blurred in the mer-world and men and women are able to forge careers as professional merfolk (mermaids and mermen). They teach at mermaid schools, perform at marine parks and aquaria, as well as special and corporate events.

However, mermaiding goes much deeper than just entertainment. Our research with first-time mermaids found some actually identify as mermaids, or more specifically with ideals represented by mermaids, such as power and natural beauty.

In a February issue of Canvas magazine, Megan Dunn talked about how mermaids represent a resurgence in feminism and can be used to further marine conservation. Our research showed that mermaids felt some kind of (re)connection with the marine environment. Some identified as ambassadors for the marine environment and many were leading conservation efforts by example.

“When I am in the water, I clean up debris, like plastic,” Mermaid Carla in Boracay told us.

They may be considered pure entertainment but for those who choose to become a mermaid and attend mermaid school it is not just fun, it is also challenging. We’d recommend giving it a go.

Professor Michael Lueck and Dr Brooke Porter work at the AUT School of Hospitality & Tourism

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