You might have been unaware that International Mermaid Day (29 March) has come round again but diver training agency PADI believes that costumed apnea is poised to become a significant route into the underwater world, including scuba. Divernet meets LAURA HUDSON, the UK’s first PADI Mermaid and Freedive Instructor
“I’ve always been a water baby, obsessed with spending any spare moment on holidays as a kid in the pool or sea, and always taking my swimming kit in the car in case we had time to visit a beach on the way back from a day out exploring,” says Laura Hudson.
Also read: Free snorkelling for the troops
Born in Norfolk and raised in south Lincolnshire, Laura is now 32. It was in June 2018 that her life changed: “By a random turn of events, I dyed my hair green and everyone said I looked like a mermaid. When they saw an advert for Mermaid Camp, they laughed and said: ‘You should totally do this’ – so I did!”
Mermaid Camp is a regular workshop event organised by the agency Hire A Mermaid UK. How long did it take Laura to feel at home in an underwater environment? “Instantly! I knew I was home the moment I put my head under the water and relaxed.
“I feel very blessed to have a natural ability at breath-holding – my first max attempt was three minutes on the first day, and I left camp a few days later with a four-minute hold, which still wasn’t reflecting the most of my abilities.”
Laura was already accustomed to appearing before an audience. She had spent four seasons as a performer at Staffordshire theme park Alton Towers before pedalling away on a charity cycle ride across Vietnam and Cambodia.
On her return she had been doing various jobs when she discovered mermaiding, and dived into the pro world almost immediately, winning Miss Mermaid UK that September and holding her first aquarium show in November.
The following year found her touring the country throughout the summer and taking part in Halloween and Christmas shows. “It was a whirlwind,” she says, and reckons it left her the most experienced aquarium mermaid in the UK.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which was “a huge struggle”, says Laura. “Mentally very challenging to not be doing what I loved and especially not being able to go to any of my jobs. Being self-employed just made it harder financially.
“However, taking a break from home brought me closer to my mer-sisters, and they truly saved me during that time. They asked if I wanted to join Aquatic Mermaids, and that was it!
“My first gig with them was less than a year ago, but we’ve managed to pack so much in as events start to happen once more, and we slowly return to some kind of normal.
“Gone are the days of lockdown and sitting in a tail in my bedroom filming TikTok video compilations with my mer-friends. Now things are opening back up again… I’ve packed in seven events this year already, which is such a positive sign.”
Laura, aka Mermaid Twinkle, works for herself but also with her “beautiful pod” of Aquatic Mermaids at events and festivals, and for Hire A Mermaid at parties. As an instructor with Sheffield-based Diveworld UK she teaches PADI Mermaid and Freedive courses, and is an AIDA 4* Assistant Instructor and Emergency First Response Instructor.
How much of her time is spent mermaiding? “Definitely not as much as I’d like, but that would mean living in the water permanently!”
Is it difficult to find venues in the UK? “Yes and no – some people still don’t quite understand what we do, what we are, or what we’re offering, but due to the increasing popularity of mermaiding there is a lot more awareness.
“A lot of people are asking about it now… I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the mermaiding world over the next few years, and how it evolves.”
What Laura has yet to experience is mermaiding work overseas. “I’ve done none… yet. I’ve only just started teaching, but I am so excited to see where I might end up travelling to!”
Where exactly do freediving and mermaiding meet? “Being qualified as a freediver doesn’t necessarily qualify you to be a pro mermaid, because it is so different. You have to be able to perform under pressure, with long breath-holds, and look realistic to make audiences believe in you.
“You need to invest your much-needed energy in a believable show with fabulous tricks such as somersaults, bubble-kisses or pulling silly faces at people at the window – even when you can’t see them!
“Some people think it’s easy, but there is so much that goes into it. Some mermaids come into the community just to have fun, as a hobby, and to connect with like-minded people wanting to escape from the stresses of reality. Some want to go pro, but not as many as you would probably think – they know how tough it is!”
Do the new mermaids Laura teaches have realistic expectations?
“So far, I’ve found that they don’t believe in themselves enough. They haven’t told me until the end that they’ve actually been super-nervous, because they weren’t sure they would pass all the required skills. It’s my job to lift them up, give them the support and confidence they need, and let them be free.”
Can mermaiding lead people into exploring other underwater pursuits such as scuba diving?
“Absolutely – if you can spark an interest in someone in the underwater world, they have the opportunity to try it all with the try-dives. It’s a great way to see if you like something before committing yourself.”
Laura hadn’t sampled scuba before mermaiding took over her life “but I have since done two scuba try-dives, and it’s so bizarre to be able to a) breathe, and b) see! I’d like to try more, for sure, especially to see more ocean wildlife for longer lengths of time.”
Safety precautions are paramount for mermaids. “Full risk assessments, of course, including a masked view of new aquarium tanks I visit so that I can see what they look like before diving, the animals there and understanding their behaviour patterns and swimming routes.
“That’s fascinating to watch and pick up on quite quickly, so a dive down to the window for a show can be timed with a shark or ray doing its usual circuit.
“We never dive alone, and our safety diver must be watching the dive continuously for any approaching animals that might be an issue, and give a ‘safety tap’ we can hear under water. I’ve got quite used to playing dodge with turtles who like to show off at the window when I am!”
For Laura, swimming alongside turtles in the aquarium shows has been her best experience: “Being close to them, able to touch and feed them and watching their curiosity on the surface is so incredible.”
Staying warm is essential during shows “because of the length of time we’re in the tank and how thin our costumes are. Priorities when getting out of the tank are always grabbing the DryRobe and a cup of tea.
“On a club night with Diveworld, if I’m not wearing a mask I also have to be aware of scuba divers below at 6m, and I’ve perfected the art of somersaulting and twisting around their training circuit, even though they're just a dark blur to me! And one of my fellow mers will be on the surface watching my every move to be sure that I’m not in any danger.
“On dry land, the most risky thing we do are photoshoots, believe it or not. We have to be aware of any tides coming in that will get towels or camera equipment wet, really cold water or me falling off a tree branch or other ridiculous place I decided would look good for a photo!”
The costumes must come in for punishment, so does Laura have to keep investing in new mermaidwear? “Yes! But also probably no – I just like to use it as an excuse to get a new tail. They have taken a bit of a battering because they can get snagged on the rocks in tanks, or anywhere you do a photoshoot outside.
“I love getting a new tail, because I make the tops and head-dresses to go with it, so I can wear my own creations too. My underwater costumes are very different to my land costumes, because they cannot have anything that poses a threat to the animals if it falls off.”
Becoming the UK’s first PADI Mermaid and Freedive Instructor and the training agency’s “Mermaid Ambassador” was an “absolute honour”, says Laura.
“I felt so overwhelmed to be asked by PADI to represent it on a global scale and make huge waves here in the UK. It’s everything I could have dreamed of and more.
“I know all eyes will be on me this year and beyond to see what I do with the skills, the courses and the students that will be coming out of my training sessions.
“I want to create a safe, supportive environment for anyone and everyone to discover their true potential and have the confidence to believe in themselves.”
Her remit embraces ocean conservation: “Campaigning and raising awareness for the state of our ocean due to global warming, coral bleaching and plastic pollution, and being a part of the movement that changes the impact humans have on the oceans before it’s too late,” she says.
“I’m truly thankful to all of those who have supported and encouraged me along the way to get here. I also want to make sure I use the opportunity for the greater good,” she says, looking forward to getting involved in events such as PADI Women’s Dive Day “and encouraging more women to get into water sports”.
Related to which, Laura reports that she has yet to teach a male mer – “but I hope that will change!” See her in action here.
PADI has introduced a range of PADI Mermaid courses, in which students are taught the art of breath-holding and how to swim with a tail, improve their comfort in the water, read ocean conditions, navigate currents and interact with marine life.
The courses include: Discover Mermaid (2-4hr, from £85); Mermaid (one day, from £250); and Advanced Mermaid (two days, from £350). There are also three pro courses: Basic Mermaid Instructor; Mermaid Instructor and Mermaid Instructor Trainer.
Anyone over the age of six can apply at entry level, and no previous diving experience is required. Learn more about becoming a PADI Mermaid.