There was a pivotal moment in Queen Pangke Tabora’s life that eclipsed all others: It was the moment, she says, when she first slid her legs into a mermaid tail.
For the transgender Filipina woman approaching middle age, seeing her legs encased in vibrant, scaly-looking neoprene three years ago was the realisation of a childhood dream.
And it marked the beginning of her immersion into a watery world where she would find acceptance. The former insurance company worker described the experience of gliding under water, half-human and half-fish, as "meditation in motion”.
"The feeling was mermai-zing,” Tabora said one recent morning while lounging in a fiery red tail on a rocky beach south of Manila, where she now teaches mermaiding and freediving full-time.
"The world outside is really noisy and you will find peace under water. ... It’s a good skill in the real world, especially during the pandemic.”
Across the world, there are thousands more merfolk like her – at its simplest, humans of all shapes, genders and backgrounds who enjoy dressing up as mermaids.
In recent years, a growing number have gleefully flocked to mermaid conventions and competitions, formed local groups called "pods”, and poured their savings into a multimillion-dollar mermaid tail industry.
On a planet plagued by war, disease and social upheaval, many merfolk have found life in the water a refuge. Perhaps Sebastian, the ornery crab in the 1989 film The Little Mermaid, said it best in his warning to land-loving mermaid Ariel: "The human world, it’s a mess. Life under the sea is better than anything they got up there!”
Away from the critics and chaos of life on land, mer-world is the kinder, gentler and more joyful alternative to the real world. It is also a world, merfolk say, where you can be whoever and whatever you want.
That openness attracts some transgender people who empathise with Ariel’s agony of being trapped in a body that feels wrong. It is also inspiring to merfolk like Che Monique, the Washington, DC-based founder of the Society of Fat Mermaids, which promotes body-positive mermaiding.
"I’m a 300-pound (136kg) Black mermaid in America over 35, and hopefully that tells somebody they can do whatever they want to do,” says Monique, whose group sells shirts that read ‘Fat mermaids make waves’ and ‘Gender is fluid under the sea’.
"Sure, on the one hand it is really silly, but I’ve watched it change people’s lives.”
After all, the ocean is vast, she notes, and most of the planet is covered in water. So why not dive in?
"I think there’s room under the sea for all of us,” Monique says.
The lure of mermaiding is clear from the Montreal home of Marielle Henault, which is stuffed to the gills with mermaid tails. The AquaMermaid CEO sells them to "mers” the world over.
"When you put your mermaid tail on at the beach or pool, you become a superstar,” says Henault, whose company runs mermaiding schools across Canada and the United States.
"Kids and adults, everybody’s happy to see a mermaid!”
When mermaiding first started to catch on, most tails for sale were custom-made silicone creations that weigh up to 23kg (50 pounds), cost upwards of US$6,000 (RM26,440) and take a surprising amount of time and lubricant to wrestle into. But over the past few years, the increasing availability of cheaper, lighter fabric options opened up mermaiding to the wider public.
As mermaiding went mainstream, glamorous photos of mermaids resplendent in glitzy tails began gaining traction on social media, further fuelling mer-mania. An obsession with The Little Mermaid is common among merfolk, and there is anticipation of a fresh wave of mermaiding interest when a live action reboot of the film is released next year.
Still, merfolk acknowledge their almost-utopia is occasionally rocked by stormy seas. As mermaiding’s popularity has risen, so too has the prevalence of creeps known as "merverts” and scammers who sell non-existent tails, says Kelly Hygema, creator of the Facebook group "Mermaids Beware: Scammers, Merverts, & More.”
"Being mermaids, it’s a predominantly women-dominated hobby and profession... so of course that does attract attention from strangers on the Internet,” says Hygema, who lives on the Caribbean island of St Thomas.
"Most of the time it’s just creepy comments, like they want to see you without the tail on or hold your breath underwater.”
Hygema advises merfolk to always have a trusted companion, or "mertender”, while performing in a tail.
"With your legs bound, you can’t really run away, so it’s important to have that set of legs there to make sure you’re OK,” she says.
Swimming in the tails takes practice. A mermaid’s mastery of the dolphin kick is key, along with equalisation techniques to alleviate ear pressure under water.
PADI, SSI and NAUI, the world’s major scuba diving certification organisations, now offer mermaid courses. There’s even a World Mermaid Championship, last held in China in 2019, which featured 70 mermaids flipping and posing in a giant glass tank before a panel of pensive judges.
Mermaid conventions ("Mercons”) are now held globally. Last month, more than 300 merfolk from across the US and Canada attended the California Mermaid Convention, which was, as convention co-founder Rachel Smith described it, "a three-day ‘shell-ebration’ of everything mermaid”. (Note: the mermaid community is awash in puns.)
For most merfolk, it’s all a little tongue-in-cheek. But it’s also meaningful. Floating in the Sacramento pool where fellow attendees of the California convention had gathered, Merman Maui summed up the importance of the community this way: "I have a new family with all these people.”
"Life is so much better when you learn to have just a little bit of fun, or a lot bit of fun, because we all believe in magic at some point,” Maui says. "A lot of times, life can get pretty dull and boring. So why not just enjoy every aspect of it that you can?” – AP