By Suzy Kridner
NEW SMYRNA BEACH - Don't be surprised if you see a mermaid emerging from the ocean near you.
When Traci Gardellis receives her new tail, she plans to take a dip near her beachside home and test it out.
A life-long fan of mermaids and marine life, she's already swam in the ocean wearing a tail she made herself of spandex covered with rolls of painted fabric scales.
The monofin she bought will propel her in the water and guide her in the ballet movements she learned recently at mermaid camp. The monofin, a single surface attached to footpockets for both feet, is typically used in finswimming and free-diving.
Ms. Gardellis, 31, spent a week earlier this month at the "Sirens of the Deep Mermaid Camp" and experienced what it is like to be an underwater performer at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on Florida's West Coast.
The camp is run by former mermaids and each "mermaid in training" is paired up with a veteran, Ms. Gardellis said.
They learned the mermaid crawl, backwards flip and how to use rhythmic movements.
"You have to use your whole body to move yourself along," she said.
One of her favorite moves was holding her breath and diving deep. While she is a certified scuba diver, the campers weren't allowed to use the air hoses the professional mermaids use. That takes months of training.
"We just held our breath as long as we could," she said and the monofin propelled her down deep into the springs.
She said she loved the peaceful feeling of diving so deep into the springs.
"I just felt so comfortable in the water."
She said she likes mermaiding as it connects her to her childhood and it's good exercise.
"I have problems with my joints, so to get a good workout that's non-impact and fun is very important. You also get to feel a sense of grace and fluidity, which is a nice way to pull one out of the sedentary, land-locked life that many of us lead daily."
Remembering when the "Little Mermaid" came out in theaters, Ms. Gardellis said she's always had a fascination with mermaids.
One part of evolution theory is early humans could live in the water, she said.
This year, there's been a TV "mockumentary" on Animal Planet, a Las Vegas show, and a recent convention, MeraPooloza, in Orlando that Ms Gardellis attended with her husband, and biggest fan, Ken.
"I would rather see an actual documentary on the folklore," said Ms. Gardellis, as some people thought the mockumentary was real.
Earning college degrees in history and recreational therapy, Ms. Gardellis was a volunteer counselor at the Marine Discovery Center's camps this summer and plans to continue working there.
In 2003 after completing her first college degree, she worked at the Discovery Center's summer camp. It was natural she return after settling there earlier this year.
"I always wanted to be a marine biologist but was talked out of getting a degree in it, so volunteering at the Marine Discovery Center brings me back to my first love," she said.
"Education also is part of how I envisioned using the idea of being a mermaid," she said. "Who better to teach kids (and adults) about humanity's vital connection to our aquatic ecosystems than a creature who is inherently part of both."
Even in grade school, she wore a mermaid necklace to school and the kids started calling her dolphin girl.
She also has a dolphin tattoo on her leg.
While spending time growing up at her parents' New Smyrna Beach vacation home, "I would sit on the dock and watch the dolphins."
The week after mermaid camp at Weeki Wachee, Ms. Gardellis and her husband attended the second annual MerPalooza Mermaid Convention at the Wyndham Orlando Resort.
It's billed as "the World's Biggest Mermaid Themed Gathering Ever" and included mermaids, pirates, fairies and other assorted mythological creatures welcome encouraged to attend as well as those who love them.
Ms. Gardellis was able to get in some pool time at the convention with her homemade tail and she also ordered a commercial tail.
Even Olympian Michael Phelps has gotten into the "merman" act.
In 2008, Disney released a photo from Annie Leibovitz's "Disney Dream Portrait Series."
Actress Julianne Moore and World Champion swimmer Michael Phelps, both wearing tails, appeared in a Disney "Fantasea" photo inspired by Ariel from "The Little Mermaid."
Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator Mark Spradley said Ms. Gardellis has been asked to ride in her mermaid attire on the Discovery Center's float in the Dec. 1 Christmas Parade.
To stay in practice, Ms. Gardellis said she and some of the "mermaids in training" she met at Weeki Wachee plan a get together next month at Alexander Springs.
"We'll swim and talk and show off our tails."
For information about the Weeki Wachee camp, contact Robyn Anderson at (352) 592-5656 Ext. 15 or email Barbara Wynns at firstname.lastname@example.org. The cost is $350 and campers must be age 30 and older.