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No myth: The mermaids are here

As Mia Mellies sunbathes on a Lauderdale-by-the-Sea beach, her seashell bra gleams in the morning sun while her cinnamon-colored mermaid tail, which looks like sunburned gold, kicks up sand. She's behind the Windjammer Resort Hotel, having been carried there in the arms of two men. The silicone tail she squeezed into is tight, like climbing into a small cocoon. It covers her torso up to her stomach, and prevents her from moving her legs.

"It's part of the lifestyle, so I don't care. I feel romantic and beautiful," says Mellies, of Plantation. "It's stunning that there are so many mermaids around right now. We're all so pretty. We're all magic."

Mellies is a full-time Coral Springs firefighter-paramedic who moonlights as Mermaid Mia. This week, she will be one of nearly 200 mermaids visiting the coastal town for Mermaids-by-the-Sea, a gathering of merfolk who aim to educate the public about the mythical, sirenlike creatures.

Mellies has been obsessed with the water nymphs since childhood. She read Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," watched Daryl Hannah in "Splash" and, when she was 10, wrapped her feet in duct tape to emulate wearing a tail. Then, she dropped into the family swimming pool in Puerto Rico and "almost drowned, and aggravated the hell out of my dad," she recalls with a laugh.

"I think all girls are fascinated with being a mermaid," Mellies says. "It's the mysterious woman who's unobtainable, who's alluring to men. [As Mermaid Mia], I do a lot of birthday parties, promotional events. Surprisingly, a lot of events in Florida need mermaids."

She and her daughter, Kassandra, 18, will often don glossy tails and deliver a mermaid fantasy to sick children at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood. She says she "became a mermaid" five years ago, when her pirate-reenactment group, the South Florida Pirates, started appearing at the hospital with a sidekick mermaid. She loved the costume, and bought her own: a seashell top and a "yes, it's really expensive" tail.

While mermaids can be sighted along the beach and strolling the sidewalks near A1A and Commercial Boulevard through Sunday, the best chance to spot one is at the Windjammer, where on Friday they'll gather for the festival's marquee event: an underwater wedding with ex-Weeki Wachee mermaid Barbara Wynn and professional diver Allen "the Grouper" Sherrod.

The couple, who met at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, famous for its mermaid shows, plan to renew their wedding vows at 11:11 a.m. Friday in scuba gear and behind a full-face mask called a Self Contained Underwater Loud Speaker.

They'll re-tie the knot roughly 700 feet offshore behind the Windjammer, next to an artificial reef that uses a mild electrical current to stimulate coral growth. The undersea nuptials will coincide with Sherrod's Guinness World Record attempt, scheduled to have begun 5 a.m. Thursday, to spend 55 consecutive hours underwater. Mermaids will strike poses on the reef and "swim around" the mer-bride and groom, Wynn says.

"I don't like mermaid beauty contests. We just wanted a place to gather, and this place is lovely. There are reefs everywhere," says Wynn, who retired in December after nearly five decades as a Weeki Wachee mermaid. "I just come to this event from a different energy, because I got to be [a mermaid] all my life. It's so cool to be around all those women who get to finally become their mer-selves. That's my mission now, to encourage any person to wear a tail, even if you're 80 years old and 200 pounds."

Wynn, who helped deliver Mermaids-by-the-Sea to town with Windjammer owner John Boutin, insists the event is a family-friendly affair, and expects to see children sporting mermaid tails. Adults curious about the flood of mermaids, meanwhile, should have plenty of chances to interact with them, including at a Saturday night party with Sherrod at Athena by the Sea Greek Restaurant.

Also on hand will be Eric Ducharme, a self-described "Mertailor" who makes and sells custom silicone and spandex mermaid tails for clients as noteworthy as Lady Gaga; and Carolyn Turgeon, author of the novel "Mermaid," a retelling of the classic fairy tale, and operator of a blog "I Am a Mermaid." On Friday evening, artist Andreas Franke will appear at Frame 'n Art by the Sea for the closing reception of "The Sinking World of Andreas Franke," his photo show of shipwrecks shot while on diving expeditions off the coast of Florida.

For Homestead's Amanda Mulvey, the allure of the mermaid started in childhood, when she admired Ariel, the redheaded heroine of Disney's "The Little Mermaid," and decided to flood her grandmother's kitchen as a way to "create an underwater paradise." (The stunt was forgiven.)

Today, she says, the walls of her home are painted in aquamarine, and coral covers her coffee table. Her bathroom is full of seashells.

"My husband loves it because he's a Navy veteran, and he calls me his Navy mermaid," says Mulvey, who wears a two-piece aquamarine costume. "It's unity. You're one with your fin. And the costume is really flattering to women who've had a baby. You can bring the suit up way past your tummy."

Boutin, one of the Mermaids-by-the-Sea organizers, also sees the gathering as a tourism-driver and a way to raise awareness about the nearby artificial reef.

"My goal here is to have every chair in town filled with a mermaid. They represent a pureness, a closer step to nature," Boutin says. "We'll be the mermaid capital of the world."

954-356-4364, pvalys@sun-sentinel.com or Twitter @philvalys

 

Mermaids-by-the-Sea Gathering

What/When: Mermaids will stroll downtown Lauderdale-by-the-Sea; an underwater wedding ceremony at 11:11 a.m. Friday will take place 700 feet offshore behind Windjammer Resort Hotel); meet artist Andreas Franke 5:30-9 p.m. Friday at Frame 'n Art by the Sea (229 Commercial Blvd.); mermaids will gather on the beach noon Saturday for diver Allen Sherrod to exit ocean; party 7-11:30 p.m. Saturday at Athena by the Sea Greek Restaurant (4400 N. Ocean Blvd.)

Where: Downtown Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and Windjammer Resort Hotel, 4244 El Mar Drive

Cost: All events are free.

Contact: 954-776-4232 or MermaidsGathering.com

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