One student is living every little girl’s dream: She’s a mermaid. She travels to different locations across South Carolina performing above and below the water in a completely functional mermaid tail. We asked her to tell us about turning this childhood fantasy into a reality.
by Caroline Simmel
As long as I can remember, I have loved mermaids. I watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid over and over again, and, with my parents’ encouragement, I read a multitude of books about mermaids. Drawing has been another love of mine since I was little, so, of course, I was constantly sketching mermaids all over everything. Whenever I went to the pool or the beach, I would pretend I was a mermaid and swim with my feet together. Mermaids have been a constant source of inspiration and joy for me. They have an enchanting quality about them, which captured my imagination and made me long to become one.
That day finally came when I was 15 years old. My fascination with mermaids was still very strong; however, I wanted something more than just doodles and books. I began researching how to make a swimmable mermaid tail – because, come on, what’s the point of being a mermaid if you can’t swim in a mermaid tail? There isn’t one. After saving up babysitting and birthday money, I was able to buy a Finis monofin and swimsuit fabric to create my very first tail. I watched an online video and, putting my skills at the sewing machine to use, meticulously followed the instructions to build it. I’ve always had a knack for arts and crafts, and the tail wasn’t too difficult to make; two weeks later, it was ready to be tested out.
I vividly remember the day I finally got to swim in my tail. I sat on the pool steps at my best friend’s house, gathering up my courage and excitement. And then I swam. It felt completely natural. I moved faster than I had ever swum before – and with total ease. From that point on, I never went to the pool without it.
Even now, swimming in my tail is the greatest feeling in the entire world to me. I feel as though I can stay underwater forever – and, honestly, if I had gills, I would live underwater. That feeling of flying through the water just like a dolphin is absolutely incredible – it’s beyond words.
When I wasn’t practicing my front and back flips and other underwater movements in my tail, I was working on my breathing skills at home – holding my breath for 30 seconds, then resting for 30 seconds, and repeating that for five minutes. I steadily increased my time, holding my breath for a minute and a half, then resting and repeating.
Then, one day, my mother suggested I turn my hobby into a small business. And so I purchased a red wig, created a brand-new tail and started marketing myself as a real-life Little Mermaid for hire. Calling my business Characters by Caroline, I started off entertaining at children’s birthday parties, all of which were pool parties. Over the years, I expanded my list of characters, and the business just took off.
In the summer of 2011, after my senior year in high school, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. After a long process of moving to the coast and getting SCUBA certified, I became a mermaid at Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach. Alongside two other mermaids, I performed four times a day, seven days a week, in a tank filled with more than 100 stingrays, fish and sharks – even a bowmouth guitarfish!
Swimming at Ripley’s was quite the experience. There wasn’t a whole lot of training that went into it – I pretty much dove in with both feet. The other two mermaids – both of whom were from Florida and had much more experience in performing underwater than I did – had already been at Ripley’s for a month and helped bring me up to speed very quickly. There were really only two rules to keep in mind: Don’t touch the bowmouth guitarfish and move slowly so as not to startle the animals. Still, when I slid into the tank for my first show, I was beyond nervous. I was terrified that I would mess up the show by forgetting a move or getting in the way of my fellow performers. I was so nervous, in fact, that I forgot that I’d just gotten into a tank filled with sharks! Lucky for me, everything went well and the rest of my time at Ripley’s was a wonderful learning experience.
Swimming with the sharks and stingrays was so much fun, I can barely describe it. Most of the sharks were really pretty scared of us mermaids because – the way they saw it – we were the biggest fish in the tank. They always got out of our way during the show. The stingrays, on the other fin, were much friendlier. During the shows, I would interact with them by giving them a kiss or petting them, and sometimes they would respond by swimming across my tail or the top of my head. The stingrays were just as excited to swim with us as we were to swim with them. Swimming with those animals was not an experience I will soon forget. And, hopefully, neither will the 200 audience members whom we met and took pictures with after each show. It was a very busy summer, but very fulfilling.
Since my time at Ripley’s, I have continued my business and have further expanded it this summer. I love what I do, and I will continue to do what I do best: bring fairy tales to life.
– Caroline Simmel is a sophomore studio art major.