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Inside the world's longest-running mermaid gathering: 'The first place I really belong' California

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AleLast weekend, around a community pool near Sacramento, flippers were being unbuckled, glittery bubble crowns were secured with wigs, and dazzling eye makeup was applied: The annual American meeting of mermaids was underway .

Hundreds gathered for the California Mermaid Convention: a three-day celebration of the increasingly popular practice of “mermaiding.” Part cosplay, part athletic endeavor, the hobby ranges from casual attire to certified divers who strap on “monofins” and float together in a pool or open ocean.

Above all, mermaids are an inclusive community working to maintain their magic as participation grows, thanks to easily accessible fins and excitement about Disney’s reboot of The Little Mermaid.

The California Mermaid Convention is a three-day celebration of the increasingly popular practice of “mermaiding”. Photograph: Lee Harland/The Guardian

Billed as the world’s longest-running mermaid convention, the California Mermaid Convention began in 2011 as an informal event between friends and merfolk of all varieties—a gender-neutral term for mermaid enthusiasts. It’s been a perfect weekend. Attendees range from professionally trained mermaids performing underwater shows to “guppies”—the community term for newcomers to the mer-world.

Merfolk came from all over the world, with one mermaid saying she made four separate flights from her home in northern Canada. The wings had panels, underwater photoshoots, workshops, and vendors for all kinds of mermaid memorabilia, all around a pool for group swimming.

Events begin on Friday nights at the Dive Bar – a mermaid-centric club that hosts nightly underwater shows. Attendees sipped cocktails in mermaid gear (minus the fins), oohed and aahed at swimmers, and participated in a contest that awarded participants whose creations “best demonstrated their mer-sonality”. Did”.

On Saturday, an overwhelming air of support and joy was infused at the community pool party — attendees chanted “Yeah, fish!” At the end of the day, the merfolk put on their best costumes for the Bubble Ball, a type of mermaid prom where couples slow dance to The Little Mermaid’s Kiss the Girl and a conga line of jellyfish, pirates, mermaids and a A man in a shrimp costume weaved around the dance floor. On Sunday, a mermaid parade through Old Sacramento — the event that first launched the convention — capped off the magical weekend.

Merfolk came from all over the world to enjoy the support and joy of the event. Photograph: Lee Harland/The Guardian

Many Mer-people declined to share their real names, preferring to keep their “mer-sona” separate from their daily lives. One such attendee – Merman Eldoris – flew to the conference from his home base in the southeast of the United States, where he is a student. She described her foray into the world of mermaids as a magical experience.

“When I was very young I used to jump into the pool with my feet together and tell everyone that I was a mermaid in another life,” he explained. Years later, he came across a YouTube video on how to make a monofin, or mermaid’s tail, and found he could make his dream come true.

Aldoris, who is genderqueer, said the community is highly inclusive—a place that allows queer, trans, and neurodivergent people to “settle into themselves.” He’d been exploring the mermaid world for nearly a decade when he finally found a local “pod”—a loose term for merfolk who swim together.

“The first time I met mermaids and swam with them, I remember realizing, wow, this is the first place I really felt like I belonged — where I didn’t have to be something other than myself.” There was no need,” he said.

That ethos is one the community is pushing to maintain as it gains more mainstream popularity. A new Netflix documentary focusing on the community is propelling it further into the mainstream, and merfolk say the recent release of the new Little Mermaid movie should lead to an additional influx of interest.

Events begin on a Friday night at the Dive Bar – a mermaid-centric club that hosts nightly underwater shows. Photograph: Lee Harland/The Guardian

Meanwhile, Padi, the world’s leading scuba diving training organization, launched a mermaid course in 2020, focusing on mermaid-specific diving skills, such as swimming with a monofin and breathing techniques. It now offers seven levels of mermaid courses around the world – from introductory to professional mermaid instructor trainer. lay down reports This has seen mermaid certifications increase by more than 400% over the past few years, with the “mermaid economy” growing more quickly than scuba diving in some places, including China.

“As we start to get more press, we’re having a lot of conversations as a group,” Aldoris said. “How do we keep people safe? How do we stay positive? How can we invite new people while making sure this community remains as pure and inclusive as ever?

‘If you want to join us, we’re going to protect you’

Mermaid costumes and performances have been around for decades famous burlesque dancer Specializing in underwater shows in the 1940s and 50s. Aquatic parks including SeaWorld hosted mermaid shows in the 1980s and 1990s, and some remain – including They Florida Park in Weeki Wachee Springs, which has operated continuously since the 1940s.

But mermaiding, in the community sense, is relatively new — and the practice can seem daunting to outsiders. Its growing popularity in recent years has been fueled by social media and the emergence of more affordable monofins. In the past, even the cheapest fans cost around $1,000. Attendees described their early days piecing together whatever they could find – hand sewing or stapling tails to get started – one woman said she used plastic from a garbage can to make her first tail. used. Today, custom fins can still spend thousands of dollarsWhereas functional swim fins can be had for as little as $30.

Although the surge in interest has left the community feeling self-protective, mer-people are largely thrilled about Disney’s live-action Little Mermaid movie, which features a black lead actor as Ariel. For many, the casting represented a mainstream departure from the historical mythological image of the mermaid as a thin, white woman.

“Representation is everything,” said Merman Onix, a conference participant and panelist. He stated that he has publicized his own experience in the mermaid community as a means of increasing the visibility of black men in the fantasy world. “I wanted to step into these places where many of us don’t feel welcome and open that door for others.”

Bailey’s casting as the Little Mermaid sparked a racist outcry, sparking a series of hashtags #NotMyAriel and As per expectation Fox News segment about “The Awake” Disney culture. But Merfolk says such reactions run counter to the reality of the mermaid community, where inclusivity has long been a top priority.

“Diversity is already here, and it has been here,” Onyx said. “If you choose to join us, we are going to protect you no matter what – you are one of us.”

The convention itself advertises the mermaid community as “very diverse and inclusive”. Its strict code of conduct It states that an event is open to attendees “regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, age, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, ethnicity, religion (or lack thereof), or technology choices”. To promote a safe experience. All day, mermaids over the age of 60 splashed along with kids in cloth tails inside the pool. There was a diversity panel about inclusive mermaids, and several group photos for mer-affinity groups that included mermaids of color, trans and non-binary mermaids and fat mermaids.

Merman Onyx, conference participant and panelist, speaks of the inclusivity of the mermaid community, ‘Diversity is already here.’ Photograph: Lee Harland/The Guardian

Che Monique, a mermaid based in the DC area, founded the Society of Fat Mermaids in 2018 and is drawn to a community where she says she’s always felt famous. She found that the whimsical nature of the mermaid lends itself to a detailed representation of multiple identities – and a desire to keep the space as safe as possible.

“The mer-community is ultimately made up of adults doing very playful, creative things,” she said. “You’re already letting your personal vulnerability show, and letting your freak out, so it makes sense that you want to protect your larger community,” she said.

Mermaid Orchid Cavett, 69, said she experienced a lot of ageism in her daily life that she doesn’t find in the mermaid community. When she dresses up as Grandmother Orchid – her persona – she has more freedom to share the joy and educate people.

“When you’re in costume, people always smile at you—they’re always happy to see you,” she said. “This world is too grim right now — too divisive. To me, there’s so much importance in bringing joy to the world. Mermaiding is about coming together, of all shapes and sizes, and being able to share that magic.