In the world of the imagination, children dream of living a fairy tale. In reality, there’s the mermaid academy. Yes, there are swimming schools for those who want to be like Ariel, the heroine of the movie The Little Mermaid, or, closer to home, Dyesebel.
Being a mermaid is not all about carousing in the water among the coral reefs and schools of fish, as Ariel does with her long colorful hair trailing her. It also means learning the basic strokes of gliding and moving underwater with legs enclosed in a 2-kg mermaid tail, movements that also happen to work out the core abdominal muscles, the lower back, legs and entire upper body.
That is why being a mermaid takes training, and an aspiring mermaid or merman, as the male counterpart is called, has at least two options.
One is the Philippine Mermaid Swimming Academy (PSMA) which was founded in Boracay but also has sites in Manila and Cebu, and the other is the Mermaid Odessa Swimming Academy which opened in Anilao, Batangas and Moalboal, Cebu.
The PSMA Boracay founders are Normeth Preglo Parzhuber, Anamie Saenz and Franziska Limer. Due to the success of the Boracay Branch, Parzhuber founded the International Mermaid Swimming Instructors Association, which certifies members from all the member and affiliated member schools globally. Parzhuber also founded the Mermaid Tail Factory, which manufactures and sells mermaid tails in the Philippines.
In 2013, Parzhuber accompanied two others from PSMA who joined the mermaid performance at the MGM aquarium in Macau. One of the other mermaids was Odessa Bugarin, who is also a divemaster certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors.
Bugarin opened her own school, Mermaid Odessa Swimming Academy, in Anilao, Batangas and Moalboal, Cebu in 2015. That same year, she focused on her free diving and also gained her certification from the International Association for Development of Apnea Level 3.
In 2016, Bugarin was one of the real-life mermaids who performed in the ADEX: Meet the Mermaids in Singapore and has been continuously invited to the event. ADEX is the longest running and the largest dive expo in Asia.
“As a real life mermaid, I can use the fantasy of the wonderful mermaid world to reach out to people and spread my causes and advocacies," Bugarin said. As a diver, she calls herself an ambassador of the oceans, sharing her own deep and intimate connection with marine life.
Bugarin joins clean up drives and picks up trash from beaches and sea. She also volunteers caring for rescued dolphins.
Her mermaid swimming skills became polished with training, and she has become comfortable using her mermaid tail, which she admits could be arduous and uncomfortable. “A mermaid coach will guide you and provide safety while you're overcoming the discomfort coming from the fact that the tail binds your legs together. There are ways to make thing easy,” she said.
Her ease in the water has gotten her some plum assignments. Michael Aw, founder of Ocean Geographic, said he worked with Bugarin for a campaign against the use of crocodile skin and meat, and she even posed and swam with the crocodile in Cuba, where she also had a photo taken dancing with a shark. She conquered diving in the Avalon Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) and met notable persons sharing her advocacy to protect the marine environment.
Bugarin's message to would-be mermaids: “Being a mermaid is not all about being beautiful or it's not all about fantasy. It's not all about cool photos and videos."
Indeed, mermaid training is challenging work. At the PSMA, the different lessons last from 90 minutes to five hours long, depending on the level. The first lessons include familiarization with the mermaid tail, a safety briefing, learning the four basic swim strokes— freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly—and breathing techniques and also practicing these skills in three-meter deep waters.
Advanced swimming lessons specialize in breathing and equalizing techniques, rescue exercises, various underwater mermaid tricks, bubble and blowing in a depth of 10 meters of water.
A certificate card from the International Mermaid Swimming Instructors Association is given during the introduction and the advanced levels.
Other lessons include free-diving basic techniques, performance mermaid and scuba mermaid. These three require a Professional Association of Diving Instructors Certification or a Free Diver certificate from International Association for Development of Apnea.
For those who are afraid of the water but still want to capture a perfect mermaid moment, the Academy offers a mermaid photo opportunity. For 30 minutes, PSMA teaches the student how to pose like a pro. Fees include the tail rental and directed photo shoot on dry sand and in knee-deep sea water.
The lessons are also available also for children and men.
(* Kristine Agustin is a licensed chemist who dabbles in writing and poetry. She loves the beach, has been exploring the Philippines and Asian countries and writing about it in her blog. She submitted a version of this piece for her feature writing course at the Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University.)