Underwater with Hannah the Mermaid
Hannah the Mermaid is an underwater performance artist. She is also a dedicated ocean activist committed to standing up for ocean life. She created her own fully functional mermaid tails and uses them to swim, dance and model underwater. Completely at ease in the ocean, she does not use cages or any kind of equipment to separate her from the animals- even sharks. In our interview she describes her path and initial inspiration for becoming a mermaid as well as the challenges she has faced and adventures she has had over the years.
Title Picture Credit: Michael Muller
How did you become a mermaid?
As a kid I naturally swam with my legs together and felt totally comfortable underwater. I drew pictures of mermaids all the time, and created clay sculptures of them. I saw the film Splash when I was 9 years old, and I realized it was my dream to have a mermaid tail. I created my first tail with the help of my artistic and supportive mother. I loved it so much that I swam around in my pool in it for months on end until it disintegrated!
Later in life I learned to swim underwater with hand crafted, fully functional mermaid tails, that took me many months and thousands of dollars to design and create. Being a professional mermaid was a self- created job. There are no schools I could go to, or agents that would find specific mermaid work for me. I had to be self motivated and creative in my approach to making it happen! Now that I have helped to create a whole new work genre of freelance professional mermaids at some point in the future I will offer mermaid schools and workshops.
Tell us a little about your unique mermaid tail.
My tail is made with a FINIS competitor monofin covered with 3mm neoprene wetsuit material. I create all my own tails and each one takes over 4 months to create and thousands of dollars in costs. For me it is a work of art that has to be fully functional as well as beautiful. There are so many elements to deal with. It needs to be flexible, long lasting, comfortable, safe, aesthetically pleasing and as realistic as possible. I hand sew on thousands of tiny scale sequins all over the tail for a very shiny, fishy look to finish it off, and then add transparent plastic fins as highlights. I make the tails so that they are form-fitting to my particular shape, tight, so that no water is sloshing around inside and no gaping or wrinkling parts as that immediately ruins the realistic look of a tail.
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What kind of training did you go to swimming deep into the sea?
I have practiced yoga and deep breathing my whole life which is invaluable in breath holding, and I also dance a lot to create a flexible spine and keep up my cardio fitness, and I eat a healthy vegetarian diet. A lot of being comfortable underwater is dealing with your fear levels; you surrender to being in a different environment. I find it meditative and calming, which slows down the heart rate and therefore requires less oxygen to the brain. If you can get into a semi trance-like state and breath slowly and deeply before entering the water your skills will increase a lot.
What has been the most difficult situation that you have been in doing this job? Could you tell us an instance that personally affected you or made you emotional.
I helped organize and participated in the surfers paddle out into the bloody waters of the Taiji Cove where dolphins were being slaughtered. The fishermen there were very angry at being filmed doing these violent acts and began to attack us with long fishing sticks, and push their boat propellers towards our legs. We held a circle for 20 minutes while the remaining live dolphins squealed and spy hopped, looking at us and moving towards us as if they knew we were there to help. We were unable to free any of them as the cove was roped off by fishermen. Eventually we had to leave and all of the dolphins were slaughtered. This goes on for 6 months every year!! However, we were able to bring the footage to the rest of the world and bring a great deal of awareness and are still campaigning to end this useless killing.
What has been your experience swimming with sharks and other predatory animals?
Sharks are beautiful and majestic for their powerful strength, they are wary predators, very alert to your every move and have incredible eyesight and senses. They glide effortlessly through the water with such ease. Their personalities are much less perceivable. They seem distant and intense, yet amazing to be around.
People often ask me why on earth I would swim with such dangerous creatures such as sharks. I find them to be intriguing, awe inspiring, magnificent and beautiful in their own way. I accept that they are one of the world’s most dangerous predators but I also have found that they are not mindless monsters just waiting for me to dip my tail in the ocean to suddenly attack me. They are wary, clever, and intelligent creatures. If you treat them with respect, know their behaviors, be very careful and occasionally show them who’s boss, then you may be lucky enough to swim with them and stay in one piece.
I feel incredibly lucky that I have a talent that gives me a voice to be able to speak for causes and issues that I feel strongly about.
Swimming with 14 ft great white sharks was beyond overwhelming! I was so scared before I did it, I had sweaty palms and nightmares for weeks before the experience. When I finally did it, although I was in a fight or flight, moment of facing death experience, I was very calm and focused on where I was, what I had to do and being super conscious of every move that the sharks made!
I was on a stinky old fishing trawler off of Guadalupe Island in Mexico, The experience was phenomenal, amazing, an incredible opportunity to face all of my fears. Although I’d been swimming as a mermaid for quite a few years I’d never seen a shark, and of course that’s the first question everyone asks: ‘Aren’t you afraid of sharks?’ I always replied, ‘Well, yeah, but that’s not going to stop me from following my passion!’ And then when I had this opportunity to go swim with the sharks I thought this is the moment, if you want to be a real mermaid! I threw myself in the deep end, and as far as I know I was the first mermaid to ever be filmed swimming with great white sharks in the wild, with no cage, wearing a tail, breath holding, with no safety gear! So I’m out there, I’m holding my breath, in a tail with my legs bound together and with no cage, and I asked, ‘What happens if a shark comes at me and I feel like it’s gonna eat me?’ and my guides said, ‘Well, they’re just like wild dogs, you just have to show them who’s the boss. Just don’t turn tail and run away, because then all its predatory instincts will be aroused. Just show them who’s boss.’ I was thinking, ‘Are you kidding, how am I going to do that, let alone even remember to do that in a moment when a great white shark is coming at me?’ So I take off, swimming in the ocean, my team is all the way behind me, and this shark starts coming directly at me. I had this experience where everything is slowing down to that one drawn out moment in time, and my brain was going a million miles an hour. So, I put my arms out wide, and started screaming underwater and swimming directly at it. I was actually yelling, but of course it sounded muffled. The shark veered off course, changed direction and took off! I scared off a 14-foot great white shark, so whenever I’m faced with scary situations in life, I remember that and think, I can handle ANYTHING!
Are you part of a foundation or association that protect the creatures of the sea?
I am working with Shawn Heinrichs to help set up Blue Sphere Foundation which is an organization to support inspiration over devastation, using art to showcase the ways in which we can live in harmony with nature.
I’m a passionate environmentalist, swimming all over the world, and speaking at events and conventions about my experiences swimming with great white sharks, humpback whales, seals, dolphins, turtles, manta rays, and other marine life.
I feel incredibly lucky that I have a talent that gives me a voice to be able to speak for causes and issues that I feel strongly about. This is the part of my job that gives me the most satisfaction, where I feel like I can be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. The ocean creatures are unique, magnificent, intelligent and imperative in our world’s ecosystem to keep everything balanced. Seeing these animals diminishing in number around the planet, getting sick from pollution, being slaughtered by humans and fished into extinction breaks my heart. I decided to create beautiful images of the connection possible between humans and ocean creatures to inspire people around the world to protect and love them. I also started to see the degradation of beautiful locations that I visited due to pollution and rubbish, so I was inspired to bring it to the attention of the world to help inspire change.
I recently shot images for a children’s photo book about a little girl who is taken on a wondrous underwater adventure by a mermaid: Last Night I Swam with a Mermaid. As the adventure unfolds, we learn the valuable lesson to respect and protect our planet. The mermaid reminds us that it is up to all of us to make a difference and to never stop dreaming.
Photo credits: Michael Muller, Hannah Fraser