HUDSON — In 1967 Rita King climbed out of the crystal-clear waters of Weeki Wachee Springs and hung up her tail. The former Weeki Wachee mermaid felt “like a fish out of water” for the next 48 years.
But in 2015, the Hudson resident and retired postal worker returned, joining the Legendary Sirens of Weeki Wachee, an eight-member team of former mermaids who perform regularly at the attraction. King, once again, is where she believes she was always meant to be.
“I always wanted to go back since the day I left,” said King, who along with her fellow Sirens does three to four shows, one weekend a month, at the attraction. “There’s something about the springs that draws you.”
The Sirens group formed in 1997, said King, after several former mermaids came together for a one-time reunion performance on the 50th anniversary of the attraction’s opening in 1947. The idea was such a hit the Sirens began performing on holidays and special occasions. It wasn’t enough for the public.
“People started asking, ‘where are the Legendary Sirens?’ ” King said.
It took four years after applying for King to earn a spot in the Sirens group, as she had to wait for a spot to open and go through extensive retraining and safety certification.
A lifelong resident of the area, King grew up swimming in local freshwater mine pits, and always preferred fresh over saltwater. When she applied for a job as a mermaid in 1963, she was just 17, and had to wait until her 18th birthday before being accepted.
“They let me hang around until I turned 18,” King recalled. “I was glad to get the job; back then that was a pretty good job for an 18-year-old girl; all other jobs didn’t compare.”
King was a performer and entertainer, and the thrill of it all was “amazing for a young girl at that time.” Over her four years mermaiding, she met many celebrities who visited the park, including Casey Stengel, who managed the New York Yankees and, later, the New York Mets, and the cast of the “Route 66” television series, which filmed an episode at the attraction that aired in 1963.
She often posed for photos with guests and was asked to signed autographs and was featured in news reels and stories.
After marriage, years of working in the less-exciting world above water, “it felt good to be back to something you believe in,” said King of her return as a Siren. King also believes strongly in the part of her job at Weeki Wachee that doesn’t involve performing — giving water and springs preservation lectures on behalf of the state park. She routinely visits schools and groups to educate people on the importance of preserving Florida’s springs and waters.
“Since the 1970s I’ve had an interest in protecting our waters,” said King. “Then I didn’t have any way to reach out to the public, but now I do.”
For years, Weeki Wachee was a small incorporated city that was run by the executives at the attraction. In late 2008, however, it became part of the Florida State park system.
During her time as a mermaid, King’s other duties include maintenance of the underwater stage at Weeki Wachee, where she and other divers clean algae from rocks and the inside of the theater’s underwater windows. It’s an early morning task. Sometimes she wears scuba tanks, but she prefers to use the hanging air hoses used by the mermaids during their performances.
Learning to use the air hoses and developing breath control is the hardest part when first becoming a mermaid performer, said King.
“You can’t take in too much air or you will be too buoyant and you’ll float up,” said King, adding it takes practice to overcome the fear and panic that rookie performers feel when they start out.
During all shows and maintenance dives, there is an underwater safety team standing by to rush in if needed, she said.
King said people interested in the story of Weeki Wachee’s mermaids should look out for a soon-to-be-released documentary film she participated in called “We are Mermaids,” which features current and former performers and details the history of the springs and attraction.
The Weeki Wachee mermaid theater currently is closed for renovations and is scheduled to reopen in June, according to John Athanason, public relations manager for the park. A show schedule on the web at weekiwachee.com details regular shows and dates and times for Legendary Sirens performances, he said.