A judgment free community where people can swim, enjoy mutual interests, and even receive a core workout: No, this place is not the local Planet Fitness, rather the Ocean State Merfolk. Based at the …
A judgment free community where people can swim, enjoy mutual interests, and even receive a core workout: No, this place is not the local Planet Fitness, rather the Ocean State Merfolk. Based at the Smithfield YMCA, Ocean State Merfolk have created a community where people not only dress up as mermaids, but also become a part of their world.
The Ocean State Merfolk “is a community of artists and free spirits who embrace the sense of play that is found through merming,” per their website. Ocean State Mermaid Erin Walsh established this pod two years ago as a means of providing others the incredible opportunity of mermaiding, and has since created an ever growing group of “fin-tastic” mermaid enthusiasts.
“My number one priority is making sure that our merfolk feel safe to try new things and to be their true authentic selves at our meet-ups and in our online group,” she said.
The pod is a wide-ranging collection of merfolk of various sizes, shapes, races, ages, gender identities, and home states, according to Walsh. Although the group is named with the Ocean State, mermaids from any state are welcomed to join. Eager mermaids from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and New York have made the trek to the Ocean State pod; Walsh even recalls a mermaid visit from Seattle for their previous session.
Ocean State Merfolk runs a pod of over 190 merfolk. They come together to swim, practice their mermaiding skills, produce content for social media, swap tops and tails and tales and “generally have a large amount of fun.” As summer sets in, the pod aims to schedule more meetups in outside venues, such as pools, lakes and seaside locations. The group also attends meetups organized by other pods throughout New England.
“Creating a group that could meet regularly to share the passion for mermaiding was very important to me,” Walsh says. Move over, connecting with like-minded merfolk, coaching safe mermaiding and removing the stigma around adult play has always been a goal of hers, and she hopes to “normalize this sort of play as an essential part of our everyday lives.”
‘Anyone can be a mermaid’
New members are always encouraged to swim with Ocean State Merfolk at their meetups. Through their belief that anyone can be a mermaid, the pod works to expand the mermaiding experience to anyone that is interested.
Walsh is a certified Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Mermaid Instructor and PADI Advanced Mermaid, Freediver and SCUBA diver, a lifeguard and an underwater photographer. For Ocean State Merfolk, she is also a modeling coach, organizes regular merfolk meetups and teaches mermaid classes.
Three years ago, Walsh commenced her mermaiding career with her fellow mer-friend, Chris Graefe. After swimming in his Mertailor monofin at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, Walsh became hooked on the adventure and never looked back.
The group’s website states that mermaiding, or “merming,” is the practice of wearing and swimming in a costume mermaid tail. This activity is open to children, hobbyists and professionals, who perform at venues such as circuses, aquariums and parties. The act can also go by the name of artistic mermaiding, mermaidry, or artistic mermaid performance.
The website goes on to say that dressing up as a character or concept, an interest known as cosplaying, allows people to tap into the “world of play” and their inner child. Those who role play as mermaids are also able to create striking photography and digital artistry through their costumes and makeup.
“It’s an incredible release to swim with a mermaid tail, freeing and fun to glide under the water doing twists and turns, flipping below the surface and then back up again,” Walsh commented. She added that mermaiding is a great way to improve well-being and fitness, as well as relieve stress. “We practice performance mermaiding just for fun and make videos to share with each other and on social media.”
Most mermaid tails are made from a monofin, which sits under a fabric, spandex or scuba knit tail skin – all of which come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Dedicated merfolk can make the financial commitment of a full silicone tail, although this purchase is usually preceded by years of practice in a fabric skin with a monofin. Costs of full silicone tails usually begin at over $1,500.
Swimming as a mermaid also takes resolute practice and technique, as stated by the group’s website, and typically involves the dolphin kick to leverage the power of the fin and propel a mermaid forward. Propulsion levels also depend on the type of monofin a mermaid uses.
Walsh praises the diversity and acceptance that radiates from their pod. Beginning with a small group of friends interested in mermaiding, the group has transformed into a unique program that connects with all walks of life, creating a supportive and collaborative environment for people to discover an often lacked sense of play.
Merfolk from out of state
“We work hard to be welcoming to all folks who join our group and encourage them in their pursuit of this wonderful hobby,” Walsh stated. With the help of the Smithfield YMCA, Ocean State Merfolk has created a program unlike any other, welcoming guests from several New England states.
Approximately twenty to thirty merfolk regularly join the Ocean State Merfolk for their meetups. However, Ocean State Merfolk hosts a collection of dedicated and enthusiastic team members who help build their mermaid community and turn their fantasies into a reality. Among Walsh and other mermaid models, the team relies on their “mertender,” Walsh’s husband Kevin, to deal with equipment and camera technicalities.
Graefe, Alyssa, Toni and Abby are the four other members of their “Dream Team” and are active merfolk themselves, participating in meetups and engaging with the community and various charities. Grafe, not only fueling the initial mermaiding idea, works as a creative assistant and underwater model for the group. He recently completed a 24-hour swimming event to raise money for a Pennsylvania community center. Alyssa is a professional mermaid performer and can be booked to perform at various events. She also makes regular appearances at “Children’s Wishes” charity events. Toni, an excellent face painter, is the team’s Make-Up, Costuming and Networking Coordinator and the forefront of “mer-Made,” a Rhode Island company that produces mermaid crowns and other mermaid themed items. Abby, artist and model, is a sculptor who creates fantasy creatures from clay and craft materials, which are featured in local galleries.
With the recent releases of the live action The Little Mermaid and the Netflix documentary Merpeople, increased awareness and appreciation around mermaiding has surfaced. And, it has certainly brought more participants to the Ocean State Merfolk.
“We are thrilled,” said Walsh about the support. According to her, five or six new merfolk will be attending their meetup on June 11. She strives to give continued access to a safe, mermaiding space for all.
Mermaid and artist Jessie Jewels recently organized an Apple Cinemas mermaid-takeover for a showing of the live action The Little Mermaid. Over twenty-five Ocean State Merfolk attended the Warwick theater, along with merfolk from the Pod of New England, Pod of Northeast and the Mermaids Merfolk of CT, RI, MA and NY. Jewels is a mermaid of many pods, Ocean State Merfolk included.
At the event, mermaids watched the movie, sang its music, and took plenty of pictures. Walsh noted that kids at the showing got a “huge kick” out of their appearance.
Holding the title of Miss Rhode Island Mermaid for 2021, 2022 and 2023, as well as Queen of the Sea RI 2023, Jewels is a strong advocate for clean, sustainable and accessible waterways for everyone. Her platform, “Save the Bay, Save the Mermaids,” voices oceanic issues and pushes towards meeting them with action. Jewels often volunteers at Save the Bay for events like beach cleanups, and advocates for state legislature regarding Rhode Island waterways.
“It’s an excellent way to be heard about issues going on in the environment,” she said of her pageant competing and advocacy. “No one else is doing it around here. It’s needed.”
Jewels additionally began creating art last year as a way to aid her platform. Profit portions of all mermaid-related art goes towards Save the Bay.
All it takes to become an Ocean State Merfolk is a short questionnaire before entering the pod’s Facebook group, as well as agreeing to the group’s rules. In the virtual space, individuals can introduce themselves and get to know each other. Announcements regarding meetups and special events are also released there.
“It’s our goal to give everyone the opportunity to try the experience of swimming in a mermaid tail and seeing just how fun it can be,” Walsh said. “Nothing should hold you back from giving it a try if you are interested.”
Nothing, not even the tail itself. Ocean State Merfolk lets participants borrow Mertailor Mermaid Tails of all shapes and sizes to try on, swim in and be photographed in. New members are always given instructions on safe swimming in a mermaid tail and are paired with veteran merfolk for a one-on-one instruction session.
“Ocean State Merfolk is about having fun for fun’s sake,” said Walsh. “I’ve traveled to Roatan, Honduras and La Paz, Mexico on mermaiding adventures doing deep sea photoshoots with fellow merfolk. Now I try to share that mermazing experience with as many people as possible.”
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