GATLINBURG — A couple of years ago, Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies invited the Weeki Wachee mermaids of Florida fame to swim to the mountains and perform at the Gatlinburg aquarium.
The Florida girls with mermaid costumes performed at Ripley's in 2009 and 2010. And the shows were popular.
Now the Ripley's has found its own mermaids and is featuring them in shows that currently run daily.
The Ripley's mermaids perform underwater in the 20-foot-deep tank that's home to small sharks and lots of rays.
Shows are currently at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. daily. After Labor Day and the end of the summer tourist season, the shows will go to weekends only.
Two young women in sparkly bikini tops and iridescent latex mermaid tails that weigh 30 to 35 pounds perform the 10-minute shows. Most of their performances are under water. Each swimmer is skilled at holding her breath, and rises quickly to the surface during the show to grab a breath.
"Holding your breath — that's a big (requirement)," says Lauren Mynhier, 24, who's known as Mermaid Aya.
"Yes, for as long as you can," agrees fellow South Carolinian and swimmer Jenna Miller, 20, known as Mermaid Marina.
Both Miller and Mynhier are excellent swimmers who love the water; Miller swam competitively for 11 years. Before tucking their legs into mermaid tails, they worked on the dive team at the Ripley's Aquarium in Myrtle Beach. But even great breath control and swimming ability won't completely turn a woman into a mermaid.
Mermaids, the two swimmers say, need to be prepared to deal with the problems like sinus and ear infections that come from a life underwater. They need to like children as well as water.
"You need to be calm in the water. You can't see and you're swimming with animals. It's all green brown blue down there with a few flashes (from the tourists' cameras)," said Mynhier.
And then there's that heavy tail of latex. Ripley's mermaids slip into the brightly colored tails just before they get into the water to perform. That requires coating petroleum jelly on their skin to get the tight tails on their bodies. Once in the tank, water gets into the tail suit to create a sort of stay-on suction.
After each show, mermaids surface into the Bay Ray's shallow end. They talk with visitors, pose for photos and give children high-fives.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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