As I sink to the bottom of the kidney bean-shaped hotel pool, scabbling to grab the end of my yellow monofin while Moves Like Jagger fades into the bubbly background, I realise that ‘becoming a mermaid’ is a tad more involved than donning a tail and posing evocatively on a photogenic rock.
Amy Froise, my infinitely patient instructor, chuckles as I clumsily try not to sink while practising my cramp release. This involved puttng my legs straight out at 90 degrees from my hip and grabbing the end of the monofin and pulling back, like when you're doing a hamstring stretch on the floor. The problem is, when you do that, you basically start to sink, so I was grabbing my fin, sinking, then flapping to the surface to try again. She’s been a qualified mermaid instructor for a year, and a diving instructor for eight, so she’s seen this before. I, however, am brand new to this.
Back when The Little Mermaid was one of three Disney films I had recorded grainily on VHS, ‘becoming a mermaid’ wasn’t a thing. But it’s 2023 now, and the world has changed. Scuba divers can get qualifications in volcano and sinkhole diving, underwater CSI skills or even zombie apocalypse training, and last year dive certification agency, PADI, added a Mermaid Course to the mix.
They’re not the first. Mermaid experiences of all sorts hit the market some years ago, with hotels offering shiny, rainbow-coloured tails to kids and helping hen parties have a giggle while channelling their inner Ariel. But there’s also a spiritual angle to mermaiding; some people swear by the healing powers and regenerative energy they and their myth can create. Across America, residents can take certifications that help them to channel their ‘mermaid energy’, bringing balance to heart and mind and using the power of the ocean to renew their spirit and soul.
My experience was to be less spiritual, but equally revelatory. As well as learning how to wiggle into a monofin, swim with it underwater and master all the requisite safety skills, I’d be introduced to the art of breath holding, a technique mastered by free divers. That’s why I’m floundering in a heated pool at the Sani Resort on Hadiliki’s stunning coastline in mid-April, earning curious looks from passers-by.
I’d been keen to dive in the crystal-clear waters of Greece’s Aegean Sea for years, but I’d also flirted with the idea of free diving for some time before that. The apparent intensity of it had deterred me though, so when mermaiding popped onto my radar it not only looked fun, but like something that would give me a gentle introduction to breathholding.
At first, the hotel pool with its aqua aerobics class and splashing kids didn’t feel like an environment particularly conducive to meditative breathing. As Amy and I clutched its tiled edge, she talked me through my first breath hold. I needed to channel my yogi breath, taking three deep inhalations (making sure each exhale was longer than the inhale), before ducking my head beneath the surface.
We shuffled awkwardly away from the 20 or so women enthusiastically throwing their limbs around, and I filtered out the pop beats in preparation to take my hold. I only had to float face down on the surface, and as the sounds of the outside world dissipated, a sense of calm enveloped me and I began to realise the benefits of the practice even in just my first 40 second stint.
Dr. Rosmy Barrios, medical advisor for the Health Reporter, reckons this technique has long term health benefits including everything from a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure to an increase in lung capacity, allowing the body to oxygenate the body’s tissues more efficiently. ‘Diving also has the potential to improve mental and emotional health,’ she adds. ‘As divers learn to control their breathing and stay calm under pressure, they can develop greater resilience and better cope with stress and anxiety.’ For many, it’s also a source of relaxation, something I’m always up for finding more ways to achieve.
But let’s not forget: my legs are tied together. Anyone who can swim will appreciate the disorientation that comes with not being able to move your lower limbs freely underwater, and while shimmying into the bright red, nylon and spandex-made tail felt exciting at first, once below the surface, it was a little-panic inducing. Not to mention hard work. Staying afloat by undulating your entire lower body tests both your coordination and your fitness levels.
As Amy explains the next steps, I can feel my core tightening and my breathing increase. As someone with relatively good aerobic fitness, I was surprised by how often I had to reach for the pool’s edge to give my body a break.
Brandee Anthony, a PADI Mermaid Instructor based in Florida, espouses both the physical and mental benefits of mermaiding. She shared with me that in a two-hour session she burns an average of 900 calories. ‘It works a lot of really great micro-muscles that you might not use otherwise and also requires a lot of flexibility – something people don’t realise coming into it.’
She also believes mermaiding is the key to unlocking people’s ‘superpower’ i.e. connecting them ‘to their sensuality’ and exercising more control over their thoughts. ‘We get a lot of people who come and say “I can’t hold my breath for more than thirty seconds” and then with our training they’ll manage two minutes. To see someone light up inside is like we’ve activated a part of them they didn’t even know existed.’
An hour into my mermaid transformation, I’m not yet feeling those superpower vibes. Swimming beneath the surface required fighting years of conditioning telling me to kick my legs independently. Initially I overcompensated, jack-knifing in place. Watching Amy glide about like a regular Attina helped, as I could see how her body worked as one to propel her through the water.
After a few practice runs I started to get the hang of monokicking and enjoyed a strange sense of liberation. The smooth, non-urgent movements combined with the lack of scuba bubbles and muted sounds combined to create an underwater experience like none other.
With Amy’s help I learnt how to swim along walls, turn, spin a somersault (harder than I’d hoped) and blow bubble rings. By the end of the session, I was more than motivated to improve my breath holding skills so I could spend more time under the water in this way, using my body as one to enjoy a peace I hadn’t known existed.
I’m not yet ready to enter the open ocean as a mermaid (for that I need to take the Advanced Mermaid Course) but while in Greece I didn’t miss the opportunity to don scuba gear and head down to Kalogria Beach. Above water, Mount Olympus sat crown-like at the end of a sparkling blue ocean, while below, cushioned starfish, hermit crabs and sea fans swayed in the current. It was cold (about 16 degrees) but brilliantly clear, and for the first time on a dive I contemplated being in this magical space in the quiet, without the bubbles, without the breathing, and it almost took my breath away.
Discover your own inner-Ariel and become a mermaid with PADI.
Where to stay: Sani Resort, Halkidiki
If a resort is offering the opportunity to become a mermaid, chances are it’s got everything else covered too, and Sani Resorts in Halkidiki certainly has.
Five luxury hotels set in a biosphere reserve on the Aegean coastline make for a collection that takes the outdoors seriously. Activities of every kind aren’t just available, they’re all but mandatory. We’re talking guided outdoor running and cycling tours around the wetlands and forests, world-class tennis and football lessons, too many types of yoga to count (nigra, family, beach, strengthening are just some), outdoor gyms (including a Spartan’s area), and water-sports galore.
It’d be hard to come here and just relax (though some bold sorts do). Everything caters to kids, so you can leave your little ones at Bear Grylls’ Survival Camp while you devour a Mediterranean, Japanese, Italian or locally-inspired lunch or explore the wetlands on e-bike.
With 27 restaurants, a PADI dive centre and the longest pool in Greece, mermaiding will be just the start of your no-doubt extensive aquatic adventures. Book a stay here.