Features

Published: Saturday December 1, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday June 28, 2013 MYT 2:32:43 PM

Making a splash

Mermaids are creatures of myth – or aren’t they? Meet the woman who is living every girl’s wet dream.

WHENEVER Katrin Felton goes for a swim in the Andaman Sea, she likes to play fish – literally. To transform into her aquatic alter ego, “Mermaid Kat”, the the 27-year-old from Hanover, Germany shimmies into her crimson-coloured neoprene tail complete with matching bikini.

“Some people laugh. Others just stare,” she says.

Today, Felton is in character. Lounging by a private pool in sparkly waterproof makeup and Mermaid Kat’s trademark costume (which took her two months to design and sew), she’s in town to conduct a three-day mermaid workshop with swimming school Dolphinlee Aquatics for girls who want to be like her.

If mermaids existed, they would no doubt resemble Felton. Her limpid aquamarine eyes, va-va-voom curves and tawny complexion make her look every bit as beautiful, if not ethereal, as the folkloric creatures she’d set out to portray.

It’s more than just a game of dress-up to Felton, however. She’s on a bigger mission: to promote conservation of our oceans.

“As a scuba diver, I witness a lot of things underwater – fishing nets, fishing boats, fishing lines and trash,” she says, adding that there’s a great Pacific rubbish patch twice the size of Texas in the central North Pacific Ocean.

“Every year, ocean trash, mainly plastic, kills more than one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles when they ingest or become entangled in it. Not only that, two cigarette butts will kill everything in one litre of water. We need to do something.”

When it comes to Mother Nature, Felton – who has retained some of her German accent – is a mine of information. She speaks with a gusto usually reserved for campaigning politicians, punctuating her sentences with well-researched facts and figures.

Part of her efforts also entails leading by example – Felton doesn’t smoke, and she’s a vegetarian. It’s working; people are starting to take notice of the cause Felton has been tirelessly promoting.

At the time of writing, the Mermaid Kat Facebook page has 2,995 likes and counting. Felton also receives messages from fans, thanking her for opening their eyes to the extent of underwater devastation.

“I’m used to people not taking me seriously,” says Felton. “When I tell them what I do however, they stop smiling and start listening.”

Fin-tasy come true

Like most girls her age, Felton grew up on a steady diet of Disney films. Among the litany of Disney princesses however, it was Ariel, the wilful red-haired heroine from The Little Mermaid, that had the five-year-old transfixed.

“I spent many hours sitting in the bathtub with my outstretched legs crossed together, hoping they would turn into a mermaid’s tail,” she says. “I also practised swimming like a mermaid, with my legs together.”

The movement, apparently, starts from “the centre of the body, and not the legs like everyone assumes.”

Not amused, Felton’s father warned her that she would drown if she kept up with her antics. His dissuasion eventually put an end to her dream. “Germany was too cold anyway,” she says.

It wasn’t until last September that her childhood dreams were reinvigorated. After a whirlwind trip around the world with her husband, Felton had decided to resettle in Phuket, working as a model and scuba diving instructor.

Inspired by the town’s balmy weather and friendly faces, she added “professional mermaid” to the list, and the colourful tattoo of four mermaids frolicking on her back is testament to how serious she is.

“It combines my two interests, swimming and modelling,” she says.

To most people, mermaid-ing may seem more like an anachronism than a viable career option. But mermaid culture, while still new in Asia, has been going strong overseas for more than half a century.

Since Weeki Wachee Springs, a tourist attraction in Florida’s Gulf Coast, opened 60 years ago, young women are trained to swim in an underwater theatre and breathe compressed air through rubber hoses while performing cabaret numbers. These women, who go on to become waitresses, police officers, nurses or full-time mothers after retiring, maintain a look and lifestyle unique to their peers.

Although thousands of girls have been paid a tidy sum to dress, or perform, as a mermaid at certain stages in their life, there are less than 10 girls in the world who have achieved a quasi-mythic status through their work. Felton belongs to the latter category because of her free-diving abilities (she can swim to depths of 80 meters, allowing her to move like a real mermaid, without the restraints of diving gear) and her commitment to the environment.

Being Southeast Asia’s only mermaid also means she never runs out of job offers. In a short space of time, Felton was commissioned to appear in charity events, advertisements, photo shoots and environmental awareness programmes.

It is these qualities, and more, that fascinated Lee Boon Leong, aka “Dolphin Lee”, and made him want to work with her. The enterprising 37-year-old, who was looking for a unique experience for his Klang-based swimming school, chanced upon Felton on the Internet.

“I wrote to her and we discussed the possibility of holding a mermaid workshop,” he says.

Held in Phuket over the course of a few days, the first mermaid workshop was attended by a handful of participants. They were trained in various aspects of mermaid-ing, from the serious (theory and equalisation techniques, free-diving) to the frivolous (underwater modelling).

”It’s much harder than you think. Mermaids don’t wear goggles or mask, so they need to hold their breaths for long periods of time. Some of the girls found the underwater photoshoot so difficult that they wanted to quit,” says Felton, whose personal record time of three minutes one second is an extraordinary skill acquired only through non-stop practice.

Just add water

Now, the second workshop is well under way. It’s a three-day affair that will – for those who are chosen to join The Mermaid Mission, Malaysia’s first and only qualified mermaid team started by Lee – culminate with a swim amongst the sharks, rays and turtles in the tanks of Aquaria KLCC as part of a unique campaign against shark finning. The Save Our Fin’s Christmas programme will happen throughout whole the month of December.

This time, five aspiring mermaids, or mersisters, as Felton calls them – have signed up, including former Selangor state swimmer and silver medallist Cheryl Ng, 27.

“I want to be a mermaid, so I can give fishes a voice,” says 22-year-old participant Chu Mei Fong, as she emerges from the pool after a training session. “Fishes don’t scream. If dogs are abused, they squeal and yelp. That’s why people feel sorry for one and not the other.”

As Lee’s former students, both Chu and Ng are deft swimmers, gliding in the chlorine like dolphins with the help of fabric tails (Felton describes these as a “beginner tails”). Being a water baby certainly helps if you want to be a mermaid, but it’s not a prerequisite.

“I’m not the best surface swimmer,” admits Felton. “I’m much better swimming underwater.”

In reality, mermaids also cannot see underwater, making their job as performers infinitely more difficult.

Felton, who says she can only make out shapes and shadows in a pool if it’s sunny, reckons the dim lighting in aquariums are an obstacle. She relates an incident during a show at the Underwater World in Pattaya, Thailand.

“Once, I bumped into something huge. It was only after watching a video of my performance that I realised what it was... a five-metre nurse shark!” she exclaims.

Still, Felton claims her underwater exploits are relatively safe. Her upcoming debut in Aquaria, for instance, will be closely monitored by two safety divers who are in charge of keeping the more dangerous animals at bay.

“I always stay within my limits. I never push my luck,” explains Felton.

The number one rule, however, is not to panic. “The more relaxed you are, the longer you’ll be able to hold your breath underwater,” she says.

It’s much easier said than done, and as their much-anticipated performance in Aquaria draws closer, an uneasy tension settles upon the group. It’s obvious, judging from their expressions, that a few girls are starting to fret.

“I’m nervous,” admits Chu, who has less than an hour to go before she is scheduled to perform with Felton. “I suppose it’s more of a mental challenge than a physical one.”

When it is time, she changes into her costume and eases herself into the aquarium, smiling.

The audience, which included a group of wide-eyed primary schoolers on a field trip, gasp when her luminescent green tail, together with Felton’s red one, appears like an apparition among the colourful fishes. The cheers subside only when the mermaids resurface between their underwater frolic to breathe.

After a fun 15-minute show that would’ve made Felton’s dad proud had he lived to see it (he passed away when she was 16), the women emerge from backstage, faces glowing from the adrenaline rush. “It’s awesome,” Ng quips, referring to her close brush with a turtle.

Grinning, Felton throws her arms around her husband, Spencer Felton, and plants a kiss on his lips. Despite all the attention they get, mermaids need love too, apparently.

Related Story

No sharks fin, please!

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Lifestyle, mermaid, environment, katrin felton, mermaid kat

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