Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Little Sugar And Some Mermaids

Before leaving the Crystal River area, there were two stops we hoped to make- one, a new discovery of Marilyn's, the ruins of the Yulee Sugar Mill, and the other, the Mermaids at the Weeki Wachee Springs. Both are well worth the time to visit. Both are state parks now, with Weeki Wachee having just been acquired by the State of Florida to restore the facility after 60 years of private operation by the town of the same name.

Named for the founder, builder, and incidentally, the first state senator from Florida, David Levy Yulee (an interesting guy and well worth Googling if you are a history buff) the mill was one of the premier providers of sugar, syrup and molasses to the southern region of the country for 10 years leading up to the Civil War. Yulee, a man of Peace, made a difficult decision to support the Confederacy and became the leading provider of sugar to that war effort, although he did not permit the use of the rail system that he had also built.

Partially restored at this point, the old limestone mill stands some hundred years later with some of the machinery which, in its day, was expensive and state of the art and had been made and imported from New York. Employing upwards of a thousand people in its hay day, the laborers are best described as slave labor. It was a hot and grueling and labor intensive task at which they worked. The presses below squeezed the juice from the sugar cane to begin the process.
The boiler that heated the syrup was a large cast iron tank that was heated by the wood fire directly below the tank.
The processed syrup was then cooled in a series of large kettles and each kettle in the process further refined the sugar.

The park is merely 6 acres and doesn't take long to explore, but the sense of history that surrounds the place is rather profound. The self guided tour is accomplished with the help of plaques describing the history of the times, the process of the mill, and the impact on the local and national scene.
Then off to Weeki Wachee Springs, home of real, live mermaids! No joke! The town built around the spring is populated by "certified" mermaids who perform underwater in the spring on a daily basis. It's a fantasy land for little girls and old men alike and anyone that marvels at the ability to hold one's breath under water while performing amazing acts of physical activity, graceful ballet, and dramatic theater.
I was excited to see my first real mermaid. I had read about the place and it's struggle to survive after 60 years of opoeration. I knew the mermaids swam in a crystal clear spring and I presumed they did some basic underwater ballet and the like, but I was unprepared for what they actually do- which is to put on musical plays, complete with dialog, dance, acrobatics, and song. What regular singers, actors, and dancers do on a stage, the mermaids can do underwater, while holding their breath. But wait, these aren't mermaids, they are Koi....
Oh! There they are! Our first look at the mermaids came in the underwater theater during a full performance of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid." The curtain of air bubbles went up and there they were! Please note- there are no scuba tanks, no air supply attached to the mermaids. They stay under water performing the "theater" for about a half hour at a time. They take their "breath" from a rubber hose which emits air bubbles that they have been trained to breath. And NO! I am not making this up! Each mermaid can hold her breath, even during physical activity, for nearly three minutes. Trust me- that is a long time to hold your breath. And the more active you are while holding your breath, the harder it is and generally the less the time you can sustain yourself without breathing. But don't take my word for how amazing these mermaids are at performing. Look at the second hand on your watch. Yes, YOU. Now take a deep breath and time yourself- no cheating. Keep still to improve your time. Most of you will likely not last 30 seconds. A minute is excellent. But three? That's amazing, especially while dancing and swimming underwater, under pressure, and while smiling and posing for the crowd.
Here, the star of the show swims gracefully across the spring during the performance. Note the black hose just below her in the water. When she needs a breath, she will swim to the end of the hose, take a casual breath from the bubbles that come out and continue on. If she does a complicated maneuver such as a loop or spiral up or down, she may hold the hose in her hand rather than break ranks to return to the air, but she will handle the air hose more like a ribbon or streamer and it thus becomes part of the choreography and not a distraction from the illusion that she is actually not requiring air down there.
What the mermaids can do underwater is quite amazing, although difficult to photograph. The glass and the water between the performers and the audience dissipates color and makes much of the set look blue to the camera. The human eye sees more color than the camera, although the "bluing" is common to both- no matter how clear the water.
Below is a look at the actual part of the spring where the underwater theater is housed. Doesn't look like much from the surface, does it? The spring averages 30 feet and more in depth, although the spring itself in the center of the "stage" area actually goes down way over 120 feet. In order to qualify as a mermaid, the girls must be able to - on a single breath - free dive to the depth of 120 feet, then ascend slowly to the surface. (One mermaid demonstrates this skill during the performance) The audience is asked to hold their collective breath as she performs this challenge. LONG BEFORE the mermaid returns to the surface, everyone in the audience is back to breathing normally!
This shot shows a couple of the mermaids sitting on the anchor and demonstrating the underwater breathing technique. I have always fancied myself a fairly good free diver. I can breath from a free flowing air hose at any depth when scuba diving, but no way can I hold my breath and go without air even approximating the level of skill that these girls, uh, mermaids, demonstrate ever day at Weeki Wachee Springs. After the show, and depending on the time of year you visit, you can do other things at the spring. We enjoyed a float down the river in perfectly clear water. Lots of fish and some more manatee sightings up close and personal.

Mermaid or manatee?????
Above and below, you can compare the "tails" of the mermaids and the manatee. Ancient lore tells us that sailors that thought they saw mermaids had actually seen manatees and not realized what they were seeing. Personally, I think you have to be at sea for a very long time in order for that mistake to take place. Either that, or the captain had tapped the keg of rum and no one aboard was thinking straight... But these still remain the primary theories for how we came to know of mermaids. Unless, of course, you are a believer! And after a trip to Weeki Wachee Springs, you just might be one.

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