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Here’s What Happens When You Apply to Be a Mermaid for the State of Florida
Brittany Manley calls herself a modern-day pirate.
About once a week, she navigates Florida’s Weeki Wachee River. Heading downriver with her boyfriend in tow, the duo picks up trash, but also treasures: waterlogged iPhones, gold rings, a $100 pair of Costa Del Mar sunglasses and “really interesting” fishing lures.
On Jan. 13, Manley returned to the source of the river at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. But rather than playing pirate, she was seeking to work as a real-life mermaid for the state of Florida.
Despite being a resident of Weeki Wachee — which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, boasted a population of 13 (humans, not mermaids) in 2016 — Manley has never really considered becoming a mermaid before now. In fact, she almost didn’t show up to Saturday’s first round of tryouts.
She and about 60 other mermaid hopefuls vied for the chance to become some of Florida’s newest state employees. They were tasked with a 300-yard timed swim and a 10-minute water-treading exercise.
Joining them at one point, a lazy manatee.
“My parents are never going to let me live this down now,” Manley said after the audition, laughing. “I’m sitting there debating hard about not doing this. I’ve just never seen myself as a strong enough swimmer.”
How the Application Process Works for Would-Be Mermaids
Initially, more than 250 women and men responded to the state park’s call for mermaids.
Because they were applying to a government job through the state of Florida, they had to fill out a five-page application, disclosing everything from whether they had a criminal record to their work history. Unlike most state applicants, would-be mermaids also had to submit a headshot alongside their resumes.
Weeki Wachee’s mermaids hold a rich snippet of Florida’s history.
Back in 1947, before the city of Weeki Wachee was even incorporated, former U.S. Navy man Newton Perry established the spring as a hot roadside attraction along U.S. 19. Mermaids flanked the roadside, waving passers-by in — like a siren song, so the tale goes.
In 1959, ABC purchased the spring and built it up to much of what visitors see today. Eventually, the attraction became the property of the city of Weeki Wachee. Then, in 2008, the city handed over ownership to the state of Florida, and the attraction was established as a state park.
Now, Florida hires mermaids on an as-needed basis; the last audition took place in April 2016. Starting salary for a mermaid is $10 an hour.
It just so happened this year’s was scheduled for Jan. 13. If the event had taken place one day earlier, the air would have been a warm 73 degrees, laced with humidity — typical for a winter day in Florida.
But, in true Florida fashion, the temperature dropped overnight.
At 9:15 a.m. Jan. 13, the Weather Channel app proclaimed, “FEELS LIKE 48º.” The flags at the park’s entrance announced the persistent 12 mph winds.
Despite the influx of applications — the most the park has ever received — only about a quarter of the applicants showed, braving the weather and submitting themselves to the spring’s chilly waters.
“Remember, the water is warmer than the air!” park employees chirped encouragingly throughout the two-hour audition.
This Is What Happens During a Mermaid Job Interview
Applicant Caitlin Wiens already had a “tail” up on the competition.
She’s a professional mermaid at the Sip ’n Dip Lounge in Great Falls, Montana. She swims four- to five-hour shifts in a pool, performing tricks and routines against the window behind the tiki bar.
But she grew up watching the Weeki Wachee mermaids; her grandma lives in Spring Hill, Florida, only about 10 minutes down the road.
The 26-year-old flew in from Helena earlier in the week for the auditions.
She had just completed the 300-yard timed swim, which at one point, became a messy clot of swimmers trying to round a single blue buoy.
Wiens emerged from the water and wrapped herself in a towel. Her wet pigtail-style buns started to dry, though her lips took on a slightly purple hue.
For her, the weather was nothing. “It’s a full 97 degrees warmer here than it is back home,” Wiens said, with a big smile on her face.
The audition was more difficult than she expected because of the spring’s 5 mph current and the natural setting. But she said the octopus tattoo on her ankle symbolizes the fact that she, like the eight-legged aquatic animal, is willing to move around and blend in with a new environment.
Wiens said if she can secure a spot as a Weeki Wachee mermaid, she’ll consider it a promotion of sorts. “It’d be such a great break from the cold,” she said.
Another hopeful, Deanna Clark, lives in Spring Hill and works behind the deli counter at Publix, but she frequents the Weeki Wachee River in her free time.
She purchased her own mermaid tail online several years ago — just for fun. She’s spent many summer days swimming with it in the river, causing kids to freak out with excitement. “Are you a mermaid?!” they’d ask.
In fact, she took a dip in the river a few days before the auditions, just to gauge her swimming performance.
“I love swimming,” Clark said. “I grew up here in the water, so [the job] seems like something that’d be a good fit.”
For this first round of auditions, Clark left her tail at home, per audition protocol. But she did her best to dress the part, sporting a shimmery fish-scaled bikini top, along with the glue-on mermaid nails she bought the night before at Hot Topic.
“I couldn’t afford the actual [matching] tail — it was a couple thousand dollars — so I just got the top,” she said.
The Next Steps of a Mermaid Job Interview
Two hours into the auditions, the last group of participants emerged from the spring after the final water-treading exercise. Those who made it — approximately 40, including Wiens and Clark — were handed a letter of congratulations from a park employee.
Cold, wet and short of breath, they couldn’t help but grin.
Some clustered into small groups to recap the day and talk about which of their body parts were most numb. Or how they wanted to get back into the water — it was warmer in there, without the wind. Or they chatter about what’s next.
Cue the second phase of mermaid auditions, which will take the form of a more traditional job interview: a 15- to 20-minute question-and-answer session.
If they pass the second round, they’ll move on to the third and final phase, the “water audition,” on a date that will likely be announced later this week. That’s when mermaid hopefuls will have a chance to swim behind the underwater auditorium's glass. Veteran mermaids will switch places with them, looking on from the theater’s seats.
But today, those in attendance most immediately focus on finding warmth.
Except for Manley, the self-proclaimed pirate who wasn’t sure about her swimming skills.
She walked over to me with big smile. She didn’t even take a second to grab her towel; she didn’t even care that the water from her hair was dripping on her letter of congratulations.
“I proved myself very wrong,” Manley said. “I made it within the last 10 seconds of that 300-yard, but I did it.”
She glanced at our camera and said she wanted to thank her boyfriend and Mermaid Victoria, her friend who already works at Weeki Wachee, both of whom encouraged her to try out.
“The possibility… it’s endless,” she said of becoming a mermaid. “You don’t know for sure there aren’t real mermaids, and when you’re younger, that’s what you dream about.”
Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. As a native Floridian, she’s a total wimp when water temperatures dip below 85 degrees.