The Real-Life Mermaid Fighting to Save Florida's Disappearing Springs

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WEEKI WACHEE, FL—The crystal-clear waters of central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs carry a certain magic. Some might even call them a fountain of youth. After all, the spring harbors beings that are practically eponymous with immortality: mermaids.

Rita King is one of them. At 71 years old, King doesn’t allow her age to stop her from letting down her long black hair and flipping her bejeweled tail as she swims through the 400 foot-deep spring. “Every time I am in that water, I feel that I’m in another world, a different dimension where I’m forever young,” King tells me.

She’s one of eight so-called “Legendary Sirens,” women ranging in age from 62 to 78 who perform as mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

The park is famous for its mermaid show, which began in 1947. Back then, the mermaids would do ballet underwater to the tune of a song, or perform “Alice in Waterland,” giant Mad Hatter face masks and all. The women would run out to the road whenever they heard a car pass, attempting to attract drivers to the park—a modern-day version of the Sirens in The Odyssey.

The Legendary Sirens are among the first to have taken part in this unique attraction, which drew 425,000 visitors last year. All of these women performed in their youth as far back as the 1950s, reuniting in 1997 on the park’s 50th anniversary.

Today, the Legendary Sirens take to the water once a month to remind visitors that once a mermaid, always a mermaid. But Rita’s performance serves another purpose, as well. She becomes a mermaid to teach visitors about the threats the spring is facing from pollution and development. As a Native woman—part-Hopi and Zuni—King’s relationship to Mother Earth, as she describes it, is rooted in her culture and in a sense of self-preservation.

Weeki Wachee took 40 million years to form, but in just 40 years, its flow has decreased by more than 10 million gallons of water a day. If the flow were to stop, the spring would cease to exist. It would dry, and, ultimately, it would die.

King first visited Weeki Wachee with her friend’s parents in 1957. It took only one mermaid show to convince her that’s where she belonged. But it wasn’t the spectacle or the glamour that drew her in.

“I was just drawn toward that water,” she says. “I wanted to swim in that water.”

King had been swimming since she was three years old, which might be why she didn’t struggle at all to become a mermaid. After graduating high school in nearby Tampa, she headed to Weeki Wachee, auditioned, and got the gig.  

In 1963, she felt the springs’ grace for the first time. She fell in love instantly.

“It wasn’t about the animals in the water,” King says, referring to the loggerhead musk turtles and manatees that frequent Weeki Wachee. “It was about the water itself. The sun would bounce off the limestone walls, and it was bright in there—even brighter than what you see today.”

King’s interest in conservation would come later. “Water conservation wasn’t an issue like it is today,” she says.

Back then, King was busy: the mermaids gave eight shows a day, seven days a week, and lines were always long to get in. King swam three times a day, helping out with ticket sales and photo ops in between.

King swam with the mermaids until 1968, when she took off to care for her first child. After a brief stint doing a mermaid-like show for a nightclub in Rio de Janeiro, King returned to Florida and spent the next 28 years working for the U.S. Postal Service. But she never stopped dreaming about the springs, and around 1975, she tried to scratch that mermaid itch once more through underwater photography. She took scuba diving classes for four months, learning through her instructor about how human development was impacting Florida’s waters.

That’s when she began to pay attention.

“The more I got a chance to look at it, the more I decided to do something,” she says.

King wears a navy blue shirt that reads, “Water is life,” as she shows me around the park on a bright and slightly brisk December day. She tells me it’s an ode to the Standing Rock movement, which saw an indigenous uprising against the Dakota Access Pipeline. That effort helped inspire King to protect the water around her home in Florida.

After retiring from the Postal Service and waiting four years for a position to open, King returned to Weeki Wachee as a Legendary Siren in 2015. She couldn’t miss the changes she saw.

While the water at Weeki Wachee still looks clear, King’s eyes are used to waters that are more full of life and less full of algae. On returning to Weeki Wachee she saw fewer aquatic plants, fewer fish species, and new species she didn’t recognize.

“I was really amazed and kind of saddened because I saw a lot of negative changes to the springs’ environment,” she says.

People tend to associate sawgrass marshlands or mangrove swamps with Florida—think the world-famous Everglades National Park—but the state’s springs make it even more spectacular. In fact, Florida boasts the largest number of first-magnitude springs in the world, ones that discharge water at a rate of 100 cubic feet or more per second.

Some signs visitors can find in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Photo: Raul Marrero/Gizmodo Media Group
Some signs visitors can find in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Photo: Raul Marrero/Gizmodo Media Group

Weeki Wachee, in particular, is special. Situated just a few miles from Central Florida’s west coast with a direct connection to the Gulf of Mexico, the spring features almost estuary-like conditions, inviting saltwater and freshwater creatures alike, including manatees and unusual crane-like birds known as limpkins. Manatees swim more than seven miles from the Gulf of Mexico up the Weeki Wachee River straight into the spring.

“There’s no other place I know of that has springs of these magnitudes that do that: flow directly into the Gulf or any other saltwater body,” says Chris Anastasiou, springs expert with the South Florida Water Management District, which owns the park. “It makes them really unique, and that connection makes them very complex, too.”

Weeki Wachee spring is just the very top of an elaborate cave system that stretches over 6,700 feet and draws its water from the Floridan aquifer system. Rainwater feeds the aquifer that gives the springs life, bubbling to the surface through a hole in the aquifer’s limestone lining.

Like most things, humans are ruining this extraordinary ecosystem. As homeowners and farmers turn to nutrient-rich fertilizers to green their lawns or feed their crops, nitrate levels spike in the aquifer and, thus, the spring. This leads to algae blooms that can block out sunlight, eat up all the water’s oxygen, and suffocate native aquatic plants, like eelgrass.

Algae blooms, in turn, impacts what animals come to the spring—including manatees, which climb up the Weeki Wachee River not only in search of warmer waters to escape the cold, wintertime Gulf of Mexico, but also to nibble on eelgrass. Before the state took over the park in 2001, the spring and the Weeki Wachee River’s eelgrass were quickly deteriorating, but the park has been working on rehabilitating the ecosystem.

“Now, there’s eelgrass, and it’s flourishing,” said Emily May, the park services specialist at Weeki Wachee.

What King’s worried about, though, is the algae, which are still taking over Weeki Wachee. She spends her free time visiting various community groups to talk to people about how they can help keep the spring’s nitrate levels down, by using organic fertilizers and homemade pesticides, for example. Even if folks don’t care about the spring, there’s a good reason for switching from toxic chemicals to coffee grounds and hot peppers: Anything that seeps into their lawn or pours down their drain and winds up in the spring ultimately winds up in people’s drinking water, too.

The Floridan aquifer is one of the most productive aquifers in the world. It pumps nearly 14 billion gallons of water a day and provides water to more than 10 million people, mostly in Florida and Georgia.

Robert Knight, the founder and executive director of the Florida Springs Institute who has been studying springs across the state most of his professional life, is worried about what nitrate pollution in the aquifer is doing to people’s health. The Florida Springs Institute has found local groundwater nitrate levels in private wells across the state are dangerously close to the state’s drinking water standard of 10,000 micrograms per liter.

The Florida Department of Health acknowledges on its website that nitrate and drinking water don’t mix, and that contamination can deplete oxygen in the blood of infants, causing their skin to turn blue. The state says nitrates aren’t linked to cancer, but the National Cancer Institute notes that when nitrates are ingested through drinking water, the reaction with other chemicals in the water “may cause cancer in humans.”

The state, in emails to Earther, was clear that reducing nitrate levels in its springs is high priority. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is restoring springs through its Basin Management Action Plans, which include stormwater projects and fertilizer ordinances. The Florida Department of Health told Earther it is working closely with the environmental department to enforce the Springs Aquifer Protection Act, which passed in 2016 and helped make these restoration plans possible.

Knight says he’s raised his concerns about the health impacts of nitrates —more than once—to both state agencies and has heard radio silence. “Our Department of Health is in denial, our water management districts are in denial,” Knight tells me. “Our Department of Environmental Protection is in denial.”

Perhaps Knight’s perspective shouldn’t come as a surprise: This is, after all, the same state where state employees can’t utter “climate change” without meeting repercussions. The region surrounding Weeki Wachee is largely white and voted red during the 2016 election. Still, Florida Governor Rick Scott announced last year he’d be putting $50 million toward restoring springs across the state, but Knight, who calls that a “greenwashing program” doesn’t foresee much change.

King wants the springs to exist for future generations to experience, and her mermaid fin won’t keep her from spreading word far and wide. In fact, all of the Legendary mermaids have made it part of their mission to help preserve their home.

In the olden days, the mermaids performed purely for entertainment. That task is now left to the younger mermaids.

The Legendary Sirens no longer dress up in elaborate costumes. They throw a little waterproof blush on their cheeks and enter the water to dance, enjoy themselves, and most importantly, enlighten their audience. Their current 30-minute show revolves entirely around conservation.

The curtain rises for the Legendary Sirens performance. Photo: Raul Marrero/Gizmodo Media Group
The curtain rises for the Legendary Sirens performance. Photo: Raul Marrero/Gizmodo Media Group

“We call it magic today because once you go in this spring water, it changes you,” Vicki Smith, the oldest legendary siren at 78, tells me. “There’s something about it.”

As soon as the audience, full of doe-eyed children and impatient parents, crowds into the dark underwater theatre to watch the Legendary Sirens perform, a video comes onto the screen.

“All that we have wrought upon the surface of the land will be returned to us to drink,” the video tells the audience to a backdrop of ominous music. The video goes on to show the cave systems beneath the spring and explain how the spring’s water is being reduced and how human land use is threatening it.

The crowd is silent during this presentation. Perhaps they didn’t realize how threatened the springs were, and the ways it which this could be impacting them. It’s not long before the video takes a more cheerful turn, reminding the audience of humanity’s intrinsic connections to water.

Left to ponder this information, children walk up to the blue curtains covering the windows that offer a fishbowl view into the spring. They’re eager to see what lies behind them.

When the curtains finally do rise, a flurry of bubbles rushes up behind the glass, revealing Weeki Wachee. An audible gasp echoes throughout the 400-person auditorium. Everyone can finally see the springhead—but not the mermaids. Not yet.

“The mermaids remember Weeki Wachee Springs as it used to be,” a voice rings through the theatre. “They remember lazy summer days and warm southern nights spent in these magical waters. Let us take you back to southern nights.”

Cue “Southern Nights” by Glen Campbell. The show begins.

Seven mermaids, dressed in gold sequin, swim up from below a platform, where they keep their air hoses. Park founder Newton Perry created these hoses, which the mermaids use to breathe, just for this spectacle to avoid the bulky sight of scuba masks and gear.

A mermaid tattoo belonging to Susie Pennoyer, a Legendary Siren. Photo: Raul Marrero/Gizmodo Media Group
A mermaid tattoo belonging to Susie Pennoyer, a Legendary Siren. Photo: Raul Marrero/Gizmodo Media Group

The mermaids twist and turn, kicking their feet to flip themselves upside down. The Legendaries hold hands to move together in a circle, dancing in unison. Some even sing along with the music. During the third musical number, “What a Wonderful World,” the women finally don their mermaid fins. King can be seen saying the words, “I love you.”

In between each of the four numbers, viewers hear bite-size facts: about the aquifer, the region’s drinking water, and the water cycles that make it all possible.

The Legendary Sirens have all walked different paths on their long lives, but they can all agree on their love for Weeki Wachee.

When they’re in the water, dancing and feeding fish together, that’s all that matters.