The everyday people transforming themselves into mermaids and mermen

There are six qualified mermen in Britain of whom four belong to a mermaid pod in north Wales. For the most part, however, it is women who are slipping into fins and tails as mermania spreads across the region.

In recent years numbers of north Wales mermaids have risen quickly, hindered only by a lack of a facilities in which to learn the skills involved. For this is a discipline that’s much more than just dressing up: it’s physically demanding and requires technical competency if you’re not going to drown while trying to emulate Ariel.

Mermaids dream of bringing a bit of magic into people’s lives. Yet the biggest benefits often lie within: in the water, while performing full-body kicks with their tails, mermaids enter a private bubble in which daily stresses are quickly forgotten.

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Helping to drive the mermaid boom in north Wales was Prestatyn’s Tyler Turner, winner of the Miss Mermaid Wales title in 2019. When she first donned tails in 2017 there were just two in the region; in the past year alone, 27 have passed basic mermaid qualifications.

For Tyler her conversion came as an epiphany. Having qualified in culinary arts she felt the relentless strain of working in the hospitality sector and quit to work as a pool attendant.

“My mental health was suffering,” she said. “I needed to take a step back – at one point I was placed on suicide watch. One day I came home from work wondering why it was so hard being an adult.

“I thought: 'If only I could be a mermaid like I used to dream of being when I was a kid'. And it was like a light went on in my head. I got an outfit and everything improved. I’m pretty sure mermaiding saved my life.” Now, if ever she’s feeling down and can’t get to a pool, she’ll take a bubble bath wearing her tail to life her spirits. Join the North Wales Live WhatsApp community group where you can get the latest stories delivered straight to your phone

Mermaid Tyler Turner dives among fish, jellyfish, spider crabs, and sea gooseberries off Anglesey
Mermaid Tyler Turner dives among fish, jellyfish, spider crabs, and sea gooseberries off Anglesey -Credit:Lukas Stevenson/Ysgol y Môr

Helping to professionalise the lifestyle is mermaid instructor Lukas Stevenson. He’s a scuba-diving dad from Ruthin, Denbighshire, who set up the Ysgol y Môr sea school last year.

Since then 27 people have completed basic SSI-backed training, 11 of whom are regulars at mermaid sessions held at swimming pools in Mold and Chirk. Two mermen come with their partners. Often they swim in the late evenings as they're the only time slots available.

“There’s been an increase in inquiries [for mermaid training],” said Lukas, 29. “But the problem is pool space – we can’t accommodate everyone. I’m trying to get access to more pools across north Wales but a lot of slots are taken up by schools.

“Come the summer holidays, when the schools are off, it should be possible to arrange more training sessions. I’m currently in discussions with pools in Llandudno, Rhyl, Bangor, and Menai Bridge.”

Merman Lukas Stevenson posing as Poseidon
Merman Lukas Stevenson posing as Poseidon -Credit:Robert Mann

Originally from Poland, Lukas arrived in Wales in 2021 having spent nine years in Ireland. A student of animal behaviour and conservation, this autumn he hopes to start a PhD in marine biology at Bangor University.

“I tried mermaiding on holiday in the Philippines four years ago,” he said. “When I came to the UK I was wondering if anyone did it here so I began to make inquiries.”

He got in touch with Georgina Miller, a UK champion free diver from Cornwall who runs Aquacity Free Diving. One of her instructors, Mischief the Mermaid (aka Emma Harper), showed him the ropes. He’s since gone on to graduate as a mermaid ocean instructor – going into the sea is a big step up swimming pools. Recently he qualified as a free diving instructor too and is offering tuition.

“Mermaiding is not just for kids,” he said. “The men and woman who come to us say they love it because they feel free and can forget everything when they’re underwater. It’s magic. Some people come because it helps with their mental health. It’s a kind of therapy allowing them to escape from the world for a while.”

Mermaid Verity Byers from Colwyn Bay washes up on an Anglesey beach
Mermaid Verity Byers from Colwyn Bay washes up on an Anglesey beach -Credit:Lukas Stevenson/Ysgol y Môr

Mermaiding is often pitched as “being in your own fairytale” which is true but also misleading: mermaid tails and monofins are unwieldy and should only be used in open water with caution. Shallow-water blackout is a potential risk and tails can become snagged underwater.

“You have to know how to get out of them quickly,” said Lukas, who shudders at some of the cheaper costumes being sold to kids online. He provides one-to-one tuition to show users how to manoeuvre into an upright position. Disentangling snagged tails – which can weigh up to 15kg – is another vital skill.

Users must be fit too. “Mermaiding is not just a case of buying a tail and slipping into the waves,” said Lukas. “When you wear a monofin just your feet are together. With a mermaid outfit on as well your knees are also held together so you need a very strong kick to swim. You must have a strong body core to work the tail and monofin together.”

Other training modules include underwater modelling for those who want to pose like Ariel. There’s more to it than you might think. Wearing full makeup, looking graceful, and smiling for the camera involves special breathing techniques. “You must trap air in your throat to help your face relax,” said Lukas. Photos must be taken quickly: mermaiding is simply too strenuous to stay underwater for long.

Mermaid instructor Lukas Stevenson shows a woman the art of mermaid posing
Mermaid instructor Lukas Stevenson shows a woman the art of mermaid posing -Credit:Robert Mann

Despite seven years as a mermaid Tyler Turner, now 31, only recently gained official certification for ocean mermaiding. In reality she was already more experienced than most – but she’s a big safety advocate and recognises the benefits of formal mermaid training.

Later this month she will be competing for the Miss Ocean World UK title in London. Victory would earn her a crack at the global title in India. That would be redemption of sorts: a similar opportunity was lost when, as Miss Mermaid Wales 2019, she won a place at Miss Mermaid International 2020 in Egypt only for the Covid pandemic to intervene.

Undeterred, she formed the Dŵr Tails North Wales Mermaid Pod, which grew to a membership of nine. Tyler even tried to get her father, Spencer Wilding, into a mermaid outfit. He’s not any old dad: at 6ft 7in and a former professional kickboxer and boxer he’s now a Hollywood regular as a stuntman and body double, most notably as Darth Vader in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Spencer politely declined Tyler’s offer. “He said he’d rather be Aquaman,” she laughed. “To be fair, he’s a pretty good swimmer.”

Mermaid Tyler Turner will be competing for the Miss Ocean World UK title this month
Mermaid Tyler Turner will be competing for the Miss Ocean World UK title this month -Credit:Gary Nixon

Tyler and her pod suffered setbacks when Pontins Prestatyn shut its pool before the holiday park closed altogether. It was where she and others had been introduced to the art of mermaiding by Lesley Wilde, possibly Britain’s first ever mermaid.

Since then the pod has linked up with Lukas and his pool sessions. Together they have ambitious plans to raise the profile of mermaiding still further. Get the best island stories from our Anglesey newsletter - sent every Friday.

Talks are under way over possible appearances at Conwy’s paddling pools. And in August a full-scale “wash-up” of mermaids is being arranged on an Anglesey beach. Locations were scouted last week and discussions have begun with the Coastguard and RNLI.

The aim is for five mermaids to swim ashore from a boat to appear before startled ranks of beachgoers. They will then give children advice on subjects such as recycling, marine conservation, and plastic pollution. “For mermaids to tell them that it will probably stick in their heads more than if it came from their parents or teachers,” said Lukas.

Lukas Stevenson practises what he teaches
Lukas Stevenson practises what he teaches -Credit:Lukas Stevenson/Ysgol y Môr

Environmental issues close to Tyler’s heart – she’s even an ambassador for the North Wales Seal Research Organisation in Denbighshire. Recycling too: an early mermaid outfit was fashioned from an old wedding dress and the theme has continued throughout her career. “I don’t have anything in my wardrobe that isn’t second-hand,” she said.

For her upcoming London pageant in London, as Miss Ocean Denbighshire, she’s made a recycled costume designed to resemble fish scales. For it, she collected “thousands” of drink can ring-pulls during litter-picks on North Wales beaches. Another outfit was made from fishing nets to highlight the dangers of marine litter.

Over the years she's appeared at schools, galas, and childrens’ groups, sometimes hauled in by wheelbarrow. Most of all she supported countless fundraising causes – most recently in full garb, perched on a giant clamshell, at Prestatyn’s Tesco Superstore in aid of a local veterans charity.

For Tyler mermaiding is now a way of life. Like many enthusiasts dressing up is part of the attraction – her Halloween mermaid was truly disturbing. Mermaiding is also big among the “merpeople” of the LGBT+ community.

Verity Byers recently qualified as an ocean mermaid at Ysgol y Môr
Verity Byers recently qualified as an ocean mermaid at Ysgol y Môr -Credit:Lukas Stevenson/Ysgol y Môr

As the lifestyle expands so does the attention – not all of it positive. “Merverts” are the (mostly) men whose interest in mermaids is not always entirely appropriate. But for Tyler, who works for Barnados, Rhyl, her “part-time passion” is overwhelmingly positive.

The biggest lure is the camaraderie of like-minded people. Not only does it keep them fit, swimming in pods is ultra-sociable and a way of reclaiming femininity. Tyler was so enamoured she introduced mermaiding to her best friend Lolly Tomlinson-Roberts, a Rhyl seamstress who now helps create the pod’s costumes.

Occasionally Tyler buys silicone tails which are often imported. Kids love them because they’re so tactile. But they’re expensive – anything from £1,000 to £5,000. So she’s looking to develop her own tail moulds and go into business – the aim is to make them more affordable and accessible.

That dovetails with another ambition. By skilling up the community Tyler envisages further benefits down the line. “The more people who get qualified the more it will open doors for us,” she said. “Ultimately we’d like to link up with local businesses – eco-friendly businesses – to create a mermaid hub offering mutual benefits.”

When underwater, she said, time stops. Mermaiding is like meditation. Given its many other benefits with the right training it can be a form of medication too. Sign up for the North Wales Live newsletter sent twice daily to your inbox