WHEN I FIRST HEARD about modern-day mermaids, I was sceptical.
I imagined girls dressed as if for a fancy-dress party, splashing about in sparkly sequins and long wigs.
Of course, I was on my way to cover Miss Scuba UK in Egypt, so my judgment may have been clouded. However, memories of The Little Mermaid sitting in her plastic, life-sized seashell at Disneyland kept springing to mind.
Meeting my first “real” mermaid changed my mind. Katrin Felton was to teach the beauty contestants how to freedive as well as how to become mermaids themselves.
Kat had flown in from Thailand early that morning with only four hours’ sleep, but her friendliness, professionalism and unassuming nature impressed me.
Beautiful and willowy, with a ready smile and infectious enthusiasm for the ocean, she made me impatient to get into the water with her.

TOTING SEVERAL LARGE, heavy bags, she showed a strength that belied her slender frame. Once on the dive-boat, she unzipped the bags. A riot of multi-coloured fabrics slithered out.
Mermaid tails and tiny matching tops in rainbow colours brightened the deck. Oohing and aahing over their prettiness, the Miss Scuba UK contestants bagged their favourite colours.
They were pretty cool, and I kind of hoped there would be one left for me to try. Unfortunately, being twice the size of Kat and the girls, I fear that one would not have been enough!
Kat and I chatted as the contestants were briefed on their first open-water dives. Originally from Germany, she had travelled widely with her husband Spencer as diving instructors.
Both are PADI speciality instructors (Spencer an IDC staff instructor as well), TDI technical advanced nitrox and deco divers and PADI freediving instructors.
After qualifying in Australia, they worked in Thailand for several years before coming to Egypt, where they planned to stay. Kat is also a stuntwoman.
Like many young girls, she had loved water and dreamed of being The Little Mermaid. In 2007 she entered the SeaStar Discovery modelling contest in Germany, and had to complete her SSI diving certification as part of the competition.
Going on to combine modelling with diving, Kat began to freedive more and more. Realising her childhood dream, in 2011 she ordered her first mermaid tail online. Mermaid Kat was born.
Mermaids (and mermen) have long fascinated us. With nearly three-quarters of the Earth covered by water it’s no wonder that, centuries ago, merfolk were believed to exist in our oceans.
In Greek mythology, the seagod Triton is depicted as a merman, while the semi-precious stone aquamarine is said to have been made from mermaid tears.
Mermaids are thought of as lovely, wise and very shy creatures prone to falling in love with sailors, so it’s not surprising that an Internet search produces countless YouTube videos and advice on how to become a mermaid.
Most popular of these is the Spell of the Sea, which involves a bowl of salty water, sea-shells, jewellery, fake flowers, drinking vast quantities of water and mystic incantations.
There is even a sexual position called “The Mermaid”, thought up by a famous women’s fashion magazine – in the mer-world, anything is possible!
The original, real-life mermaids were Japan’s Ama divers. Naked to minimise drag, these “women of the sea” would regularly freedive to 10m for two minutes on a single breath in the often very cold waters of northern Japan to collect abalone, seaweed, shellfish and pearls. Records dating back as far back as 750AD pay tribute to these amazing women.
The Ama were nearly always female because women have thicker layers of fat than men, so can endure colder water for longer. They were also early feminists, able to support themselves financially, live independently and foster strong communities.
With modernisation of Japan’s fisheries and a lack of younger successors, the Ama profession is dying out rapidly. There are said to be only a couple of hundred Ama left, in Toba and Shima City.
The new wave of mermaids are not professional pearl-divers, but hardly a week seems to pass without their images, either modelling on land, half-submerged or under water, being seen in the press or on social media. What’s behind this trend

THE INTERNATIONAL MERMAID Swimming Instructors Association (IMSIA) has certified many merfolk around the world, including Kat. Her peers include Mermaid Linden from the USA who, along with workshops and training, offers Corporate Mermaid days not only in the sea or in swimming pools but in her own large portable fish-tank.
“Mertailor” and Merman Eric Ducharme, also from the USA, designs and builds mertails for mermen. Mermaid Hannah, an “ocean activist” from Australia, appears in movies and photo shoots in exotic locations and has featured as a mermaid with the Cirque du Soleil.
Mermaid Dana has the beautiful location of Hawaii as her mermaid playground, while Merman Antonio and Mermaid Melissa are a couple who work at Seaworld Orlando and say they found love through being merfolk.
IMSIA’s vision is to create a mermaid community that promotes responsible merfolk who can help to educate both the public about ocean conservation and villagers and fishermen in rural areas worldwide about first aid, rescue training, open-water safety, the importance of sound environmental practices and waste management.
It also provides Mermaid Therapy services for underprivileged children, children with special needs and people with water phobias to help them overcome their fears.

I SOON FOUND OUT why Kat is so keen on promoting the sport – and sport I think it is, rather than some kind of dabbling in the sea. In her specially made 20kg silicone monofin tail, she can dive to 20m for more than three minutes. She and her merfolk colleagues do appear to be extremely accomplished athletes.
Professional merfolk work with many ocean charities including Reef Check Worldwide, Coral Reef Adventure and PADI Project Aware as well as the Make a Wish Foundation. Mermaid Kats way of highlighting ocean conservation is via her freediving school and workshops.
If little girls dream of becoming little mermaids, she can teach them how to do it, from as early as the age of five. This is more than play-acting – it’s teaching them both ocean conservation and practical freediving skills, making them highly aware of their surroundings and totally comfortable in the water.
PADI Bubblemaker programmes start at the age of eight, so this is a way of making even younger children ocean-aware in their formative years.
Kats Professional Mermaid Workshops are for anyone over 14 who can swim 200m confidently without stopping. And while it is more of a women’s sport, she told me that more and more men are getting involved.
Most mermaid tails are made from a monofin covered in Lycra, though they can also be made of neoprene or silicon.
They can cost up to £1500 in made-to-measure silicon but start at about £120.
As we arrived at the dive-site, Kat applied a water-soluble and eco-friendly oil to her torso and legs. I helped her manoeuvre her new, made-to-measure, very heavy and quite unwieldy silicon tail to the edge of the dive-platform.
Excited to be using it for the first time, Kat explained that the Lycra versions, the type used for most of her freediving classes and workshops, were very easy to put on. However, because of the structure of the silicon, this tail would give her more power under water, while its weight would mean that she needed very little, if any, extra weight hidden under the waist.
With the Lycra suits, she needed several extra kilos to allow her to stay down at depth, and this looked bulky and was hard to hide in photos.
Wriggling inside, Kat became every inch a beautiful siren. Simply donning her tail transformed her attitude and body positioning. Arching her back and tossing her hair, she was the epitome of the ages-old sailors’ fantasy mermaid.

AS I ENTERED THE WATER with a giant stride, feeling bulky and ungainly, Kat slithered in with barely a splash.
The cool 21°C water seeped into my wetsuit, making me shiver slightly. Kat must have been really cold.
Finning like a dolphin, she moved away from the boat, acclimatising with short, shallow freedives. When she felt ready, she briefed me on what she could do and I told her which shots I thought would work well. She understood immediately.
I descended to 10m and waited. Kat gracefully duck-dived and swam towards me exactly as I had requested, opening her eyes and looking towards the camera as she passed by.
Within minutes, I had a series of good images and left Kat to pose for the other divers in the group. Unfortunately they mercilessly kept her posing in that cold water for more than 45 minutes. She didn’t complain once, though she must have been on the verge of hypothermia and exhaustion from jet-lag and lack of sleep.
Kat asked if I could take some photos of her in a dress under water. Because of the water temperature, she suggested that an instructor on board, Niklas Funk, be her safety diver. She could complete a quick dive by spending more time at the bottom, breathing off his octopus when needed, rather than going up and down.
I watched from the bottom as Niklas accompanied Kat down. She was wearing a black mask but was in full make-up and wearing a bright yellow chiffon dress with diamantes – surreal.
Helping Kat into position near a coral outcrop, as she was unable to swim without fins and with the long tendrils of chiffon tangling around her legs, Niklas waited for her to get comfortable and throw the octopus away. Directed to get out of the shot as soon as possible, he zoomed away in the opposite direction without kicking up the bottom.
Kat started to pose. Although she had her eyes open, she couldn’t see me very well, yet she was able to keep each pose just long enough for me to get a decent shot before changing position.
After about two minutes, she signalled to Niklas that she needed air by touching her lips with two fingers. He appeared and placed the regulator in front of her mouth.
Taking only two or three breaths, Kat threw the octopus away again and went on modelling. I was very impressed by Kat’s professionalism and comfort under water.
Mike, a very manly PADI instructor from Cornwall who was teaching the Miss Scuba UK contestants the Open Water course, couldn’t wait to give this new pastime a go.
Squeezing into a brightly coloured mermaid tail in the swimming pool at our hotel, he tried to look sinuous and effortless while doing a dolphin kick, but found it extremely tiring and difficult. At one point he duck-dived with such enthusiasm that he hit his chin painfully on the bottom!
Undeterred, he was scheming as I left to make a matt-black Action Man tail for himself back in Cornwall.

For more information about mermaiding, visit internationalmermaidswimminginstructorsassociation.com or www.underwater model.info/mermaid