Meet the Mermaid Trying to Save Florida's Ailing Springs

Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

Weeki Wachee Springs – the first magnitude spring that is home to mermaids, manatees and magic – is being threatened with pollution and development.

Rita King is a mermaid on a mission. The 71-year old has been swimming and shimmying with her shimmering tail at Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs on and off since the mid-1960s – but now her aquatic entertainment has taken a new turn: Environmental enlightenment.

The wondrous roadside attraction and State Park that plays home to mermaid shows has been delighting visitors with its swimming performers and natural splendors since 1947 – kitsch in a way that only Florida can do.

But at the heart of it all are the springs themself. Yessenia Funes explains in Earther, which inspired this story, how special the place is. She writes:

Situated just a few miles from Central Florida’s west coast with a direct connection to the Gulf of Mexico, the spring features almost estuary-like conditions, inviting saltwater and freshwater creatures alike, including manatees and unusual crane-like birds known as limpkins. Manatees swim more than seven miles from the Gulf of Mexico up the Weeki Wachee River straight into the spring.
“There’s no other place I know of that has springs of these magnitudes that do that: flow directly into the Gulf or any other saltwater body,” says Chris Anastasiou, springs expert with the South Florida Water Management District, which owns the park. “It makes them really unique, and that connection makes them very complex, too.”

Funes notes that it took Weeki Wachee 40 million years to form, but in just the last 40 years, its flow has decreased by more than 10 million gallons of water a day.

And the change hasn't been lost on King. After a long hiatus from mermaid life and retiring from a job with the Postal Service, the former mermaid returned to perform at the springs in 2015 as a “Legendary Siren” (#goals). The difference was easy for her to see; fewer aquatic plants, fewer fish species, and new species she didn’t recognize.

Rita King and Miss Universe

© Rita King and Miss Universe at Weeki Wachee Springs, late 1960s

“I was really amazed and kind of saddened because I saw a lot of negative changes to the springs’ environment,” King tells Funes. The culprit here appears to be homeowners and farmers and their lawn-boosting, crop-feeding fertilizers that run off into the aquifer and cause nitrate levels to soar. Which results in algae blooms that “can block out sunlight, eat up all the water’s oxygen, and suffocate native aquatic plants, like eelgrass,” writes Funes.

And from there, the dominoes continue to tumble; for example, manatees love eelgrass – though thankfully the park has been restoring the eelgrass and they say that it is now flourishing.

So aside from mermaid duties, King now spends time doing community outreach speaking about what people can do to help the water; like using organic fertilizers and natural pesticides. Not only is this an urgent issue for the springs, but for the state’s drinking water as well. Research has found that groundwater nitrate levels in private wells across the state are nearing the state’s drinking water standard of 10,000 micrograms per liter.

When we think about the things we stand to lose thanks to our chronic trouncing of the natural world, our thoughts often first turn to the beleaguered animals and the mutilation of landscapes that we cherish ... and of course all the more serious consequences. But there are so many subtle things at risk as well. At Weeki Wachee Springs, there is the water and the manatees that would be tragic to lose ... but also the magic and mermaids of a roadside attraction somewhere off Route 19.

For more, read Funes' whole essay here: The Real-Life Mermaid Fighting to Save Florida's Disappearing Springs