Melissa Dawn plopped tail first on Saturday night into Ray Bay at Ripley's Aquarium in Myrtle Beach. The various stingrays, sharks and a bowmouth guitarfish swimming laps appeared unfazed, but the crowd of people sitting on the floor and standing in the back of the gallery glued their eyes to the mermaid as instrumental music played.
With a 5-foot-long, blue, green and aquamarine fluke and flowing blond hair, Dawn did rhythmic flips, somersaults and dances for eight minutes underwater. She looked at ease, smiling through the free-diving show without any breathing apparatus, and surfacing for air 18 times.
When Dawn lay on her back on the bottom of the tank, the assembly of onlookers ooed and chuckled at the doughnut rings she sent spiraling upward with pauses as she budgeted her exhalation.
Afterward, she visited the shallow end of Ray Bay, the touch tank for stingrays, and spent about 15 minutes making the rounds for children and some adults to have photos taken with her. One girl blurted out, "I wish I could be a mermaid."
Everyone visiting Ripley's through Sept. 5 has a choice of three mermaid shows daily, at noon, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Chad Netherland, director of Ocean Boulevard Attractions for Ripley's Myrtle Beach, said adding the mermaid shows for the season, amid the aquarium's slew of summer camps under way, feeds off the fervor created by the Weeki Wachee State Park mermaids from Florida, who visited Ripley's for one weekend during each of the last three summers. This Ripley's show, starring Dawn, the head mermaid, or Shannon Scott, a brunette who sports a red tail, lets the aquarium "have a summer dedicated to mermaids ... mermaid mania," he said.
Earlier this week, outside her costume - and yes, with two legs - Dawn spoke about the thrills she sees during and after mermaid performances.
"Kids are so excited to actually meet a mermaid," she said. "The show has a 'wow factor,' but the kids also have a memory to take home."
Hearing youngsters express "I had no idea they were real" also wows Dawn, who will let viewers touch her elaborate handmade silicone tail after a show. The flukes are kind of buoyant, and the women train in them, a craft that Dawn treats as "one of a kind."
Dawn said she leads training of new mermaids - including two fill-in performers - and puts together routines and makes safety adjustments to the show as they try new tricks that generate good feedback.
"The tails are 50 pounds wet," she said, "and they are not easy to get into. We are also in 74-degree water and no wetsuits."
Having grown up in St. Augustine, Fla., along the Atlantic, Dawn cannot remember a time when she wasn't frolicking in a pool or the ocean. A former entertainer at SeaWorld in Florida, she has spent eight years doing underwater performances, including five years as a mermaid, "so all these things come into play," she said.
Diving at Ripley's with its Ray Bay residents, touching rays - and sometimes vice versa - Dawn said the performers this summer "are as close as you can get to a real mermaid."
This form of athleticism, including building endurance with breath control and stamina, intrigues Dawn, especially with shows seven days a week.
"I grow as a performer," she said. "This is where I feel most at home."
The lower a mermaid descends in a tank, the higher the heart rate and demand on breath holding, for example, said Dawn, whose longest stretch underwater through the years has spanned 4 minutes, 18 seconds.
"Just like an athlete," she said, "you have to train for it and regulate your heartbeat."
Dawn said she appreciates Ripley's management for encouraging the divers to use all their creativity in making and refining their routines, which fulfill multiple missions for marine animal awareness on bigger scales.
"We're great mascots for entertainment and education," she said, "for kids and adults."
The exercise also keeps Dawn pumped, especially because the mermaids, with legs clad in tails, pull themselves out of the water using only "hand rails and all of our upper body strength."
"Needless to say," she said, "I will have six-pack abs and arms of steel by the end of the summer."