Underwater performer remains forever connected to Weeki Wachee Springs
Almost 60 years ago, the crystal clear waters of the Weeki Wachee River and Weeki Wachee Springs State Park beckoned a young Emilia Victoria Vergara to the underwater world of mermaids.
From 1957 through 1961, she swam 18 performances a week in the park’s world-famous underwater mermaid show, entertaining audiences from around the world with feats of grace, beauty and athleticism.
“When I started swimming in the shows, there were only two girls in each performance, and we didn’t wear mermaid tails when we swam,” says the spunky 76-year-old, now known as Vicki Smith, who still has a trim figure, a bright smile and sparkling eyes.
“We fed the fish and interacted with other underwater creatures to entertain the crowds,” says Vicki. “And, of course, we stayed underwater by learning to take breaths from the submerged air hoses, then holding our breath as we did our routines. Some of the girls in my day could hold their breath for as long as three minutes.”
Stunt swimmer and promoter Newt Perry opened the underwater mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs in 1947. A 65-seat submerged theater with a glass wall allowed viewing into the main room of the springs.
Using the idea of synchronized swimming with an underwater twist, Newt created a world of mermaids that drew guests to the remote part of the state to the large spring that feeds the Weeki Wachee River.
Newt installed compressed-air hoses and an underwater air lock for the mermaids to use during the 30- to 40-minute shows. The mermaids originally swam in one-piece bathing suits, sometimes adorned with short tutus.
“Between shows, we’d take tickets, serve as greeters, talk with the audience and sign autographs or have our photos taken with guests,” Vicki says. “There were usually six or seven shows a day, and each of us would swim in three or four of those and did live announcing in the audience when we weren’t swimming.”
In 1960, ABC Paramount bought the lease to the show and brought in “a lot of movie stars and hoopla,” Vicki says.
“We went from two to three girls in a show to as many as eight or 10, and we began doing choreography to music piped underwater,” she notes. “Our costumes became more elaborate with beautiful tails, and our routines told stories. We became much more Hollywood.”
The next year, Vicki married and left her life as a mermaid—at least for a while. She lived a conventional life in Knoxville, Tennessee, as a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, grocery wholesale buyer and sales representative for Procter & Gamble.
Vicki returned to Weeki Wachee for reunions—a chance to reconnect with women who swam as her contemporaries and the younger mermaids who followed.
When she retired in 1992, Vicki and her husband, Jack, moved back to Florida. They found a comfortable home with a shady deck that overlooks the banks of the Weeki Wachee River.
“Even though we lived in Tennessee for most of our marriage, the magic of the springs and my passion for the waters of the Weeki Wachee River drew me back,” Vicki says. “I joke that I moved back to the Weeki Wachee River, and Jack followed me here.”
In 1997, at the 50th mermaid reunion, a group of alumni were asked to do a show. That led to formation of the Legendary Sirens—former mermaids who now swim several shows the first weekend of each month. Vicki joined the Sirens in 2004 and regularly performs with the group.
“At 76, I’m the oldest living mermaid, and truly love being able to do shows and meet guests,” she says.
Vicki’s love of the springs and river goes deeper than the fond memories of her time as a mermaid. She volunteers at the park’s Archives Cottage, identifying mermaids in photos, and is a lifetime member of the Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park—a volunteer group committed to the environmental protection of the springs and river, and that raises funds for improvements.
Today, the park is owned and operated by the State of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Recreation and Parks. The property encompasses nearly 570 acres—53 of them submerged as the springs. The underwater theater can seat up to 400 people. The park offers animal shows, picnic areas, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, boat tours and Buccaneer Bay waterpark.
“Over the years, I’ve seen many changes in Weeki Wachee, but it continues to be an irreplaceable part of my life,” Vicki says. “The water from the river and the springs just flows through my veins. It’s a fragile and feminine river, and that’s why I’m so passionate about it. It’s a spiritual thing to be part of the river, and I’ll always be connected to it in so many ways.”