Angie Braithwaite — who goes by her mermaid name, Lady Ainé — acknowledges that it’s unlikely mermaids ever existed in the Great Salt Lake. She said that’s because of the lake’s salt content, which is higher than that of the open ocean.
Braithwaite is the leader of The Mermaids of the Great Salt Lake, a group of entertainers and performers — not cosplayers, they declare adamantly — who appear at renaissance fairs and conventions, such as FanX. They have been splashing around since 2011, making them the first and longest-running such pod in Utah, Braithwaite said.
The lake is the closest notable body of water, so the name still works, she said. Besides, she noted, the group spends about 95% of their time “dry.”
Another member, Tori Allen — known as B.B. Big Blue — said that the name is a nod to the group’s ability to survive in harsh circumstances.
The group — launched by Braithwaite’s predecessor — boasts 20 merpeople, two men and 18 women, all volunteers. The members range in age from 23 to 76, but it’s another facet of the group’s diversity that attracted many of them.
“You can be small, big, tall, disabled,” Braithwaite said. “When I first got into this pod, I didn’t know of any other pods that allowed people who were plus size.”
Bradie Anderson — a horn-wearing mermaid who goes by Beetle the G.O.A.T. — said they like this pod because, “I’m not a very standard feminine person. … It was so nice to know that with my short hair and the way I look, I was welcomed here.”
Allen said the group “is about self-love and body positivity. We’re all about individuality and loving ourselves. … We’re all from different backgrounds, traumas, everything.”
Reality vs. reality TV
Mermaids are having a moment in popular culture. There was the May release of Disney’s live-action version of “The Little Mermaid.” Also in May, Netflix debuted the docuseries “MerPeople,” a four-episode look at the competitive and expensive world of professional mermaiding, primarily at the Weeki Wachee Gardens about an hour’s drive north of Tampa.
The Mermaids of the Great Salt Lake are fans of Disney’s take on the Hans Christian Andersen tale. On a June afternoon gathered in a backyard pool, the group members have the cast recording of the 2008 Broadway production of “The Little Mermaid” playing in the background.
They’re also aware of the Netflix series, they say their lives are less intense than the merpeople on the show — though they admit they spend a lot of time on their mersonas, just like their Florida counterparts.
The Great Salt Lake mermaids joke that they should have been featured on the documentary series — and they hold out hopes for an appearance in Season 2.
Kunz said that the show has provided good exposure about what the merpeople community is all about, there’s a lot more to it.
Jodi Bingham, who calls herself Princess Pearl, mentioned a mermaid interviewed on the show who said she was disappointed about living in a landlocked state, performing at kids parties rather than being in a big performing pod near the sea.
“For us [in Utah], that’s what we’re about,” Bingham said. “We want to show up at the parties. We want to work with the kids. We don’t necessarily want to be the big fish in the small pond.”
Lessons of the sea
In their public appearances, the Mermaids of the Great Salt Lake aim to teach lessons to children — both about body positivity, and about water conservation.
The group doesn’t work off a set curriculum, Braithwaite said. “All we can do is just start young and teach them not to abuse the water,” she said.
Allen said that B.B. Big Blue’s “mersona” is that of a guardian. “I’m an open-ocean mermaid that travels with turtles and whales,” she said, adding that she tells children about the dangers of ghost nets — abandoned fishing nets that snag on reefs and shipwrecks, and can catch, injure and kill marine creatures. Such nets, she said, are “a really bad issue in the open ocean.”
Allen also said she brings her topics together in a story format. For example, she tells children about a sea turtle who got a plastic straw stuck in their nose. “Kids tend to understand such topics better when you put them in a story,” she said.
Allen’s brother, Gaven, is in the process of joining the group. He said that he will eventually call his mersona “Scrapper,” because his aim is to collect garbage from the ocean — and raise awareness of how much trash is left in the ocean. (A study released in March estimated that there are some 171 trillion plastic particles in the earth’s oceans, and if gathered together, they would weigh 2.3 million tons.)
Nancy Doxtator, a wise mermaid who goes by Saorirse said, “Most of us, when we do tell stories, we tell about what area [of] the ocean or sea we come from, and the tales that are told about the mermaids in this area, and how they became mermaids.”
Drake Kunz, aka Aksel, said that it starts with making kids aware of what is happening in the environment, both generally and around them.
“The earlier you start instilling these memories,” Anderson said, “it installs with the neural pathways they’ve got, and it just creates a deep love.”
A sense of community
On the Netflix show, fantasy sells. The Great Salt Lake mermaids have attended industry conventions — there’s one, MerMagicCon, in March in Maryland — and have sometimes appeared on panels. But for them, mermaiding is more about having fun than about performing tricks in the water.
When they’re in the water, Anderson said, they’re separated from the people. “There are some times where you can just sit there and they don’t expect the tails to move,” she said, mimicking a child’s gasp of surprise. “You can just wiggle your feet in the monofin enough to make it look organic. It just makes them smile. … I love it when you can make the magic happen.”
The Salt Lake merpeople talk admiringly of the MerTailor, a craftsman featured on the Netflix show who makes exquisite tails. His tails can cost between $300 and $500 each — which bolsters the claim made in the series’ first episode that mermaiding is a half-billion-dollar industry.
The Great Salt Lake group members said they might dream of a fancy, expensive tail, but they’re happy to squeeze into their homemade tails of silicone and fabric. (A tail can weigh up to 30 pounds, depending on the materials used.) For many of them, making their tails started when they were young, sometimes with the simple act of wrapping a towel around their legs.
For Holly Lancaster, alias Mermaid Holly, the dream came much later in life.
“My sweet husband whipped out a guitar on my birthday and sang a song [about] how he bought me a mermaid tail,” Lancaster said. Her whole family pooled their money to buy it. Then, she reached out in a mermaid Facebook group looking for a Utah pod, and Savannah Nystrom — who has the mermaid name Shellsea — responded, telling her about the Great Salt Lake group.
The group relies on their handlers — people who help them move around in their tails, bring them food and water, and remind them to reapply sunscreen. They look out for each other.
Their sense of community is most on display when they get into the pool for fun. Some swim in their tails, graceful and enthusiastic. Their makeup ebbs away in the flow of the water, and strands of hair — natural or from their wigs — sticks to their cheeks.
The joy of being a mermaid overflows in those moments, Allen said. “We’re about each other, and for ourselves.”
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