Mermaid tails should not be called children's toys, but "an accessory, such as a pair of flippers, a snorkel or a mask."

That's according to Vancouver's Lori Papajohn, one of several people who contacted me in response to a story I wrote recently about the safety concerns surrounding mermaid tails.

"There are some misconceptions in your article. Swimmable mermaid tails are not marketed as toys and all purchased tails come with usage and supervision recommendations," Jamie Boutin of Red Deer, Alta., wrote in an email.

Indeed they do come with a safety disclaimer, but so do most toys.

"As our mermaid tail is intended to be used in the water, we focus on and emphasize safety first. We do so on our packaging, products, and on our website," said Eric Browning, the CEO of the U.S. mermaid tail manufacturer Fin Fun.

But the City of Calgary calls them toys.

"It's a relatively new toy and we're still evaluating the toy to determine even whether or not in the long run we're going to continue to allow it," said Jack Birkett, aquatics operations co-ordinator for the city.

Toy or not, one thing is for sure. Mermaid tails are not just for kids.

Adult mermaids

Raina Mermaid

Stephanie Brown goes by 'Raina Mermaid' when she teaches and performs. (Submitted by Sean Norman)

My correspondence with Boutin and Papajohn lead me to discover a whole new world — the bourgeoning sub-culture of adult mermaids and mermen.

Boutin wears a mermaid tail for pleasure and exercise, but Papajohn puts hers on for work.

She runs mermaid parties at pools, teaching children how to safely use the tails.

Papajohn describes herself as an "open-ocean mermaid," and spent five weeks this year swimming with turtles and dolphins off Maui and the Kona Coast.

"We could hear kids screaming 'Mermaid! Mermaid!' from the shore," said Papajohn.

Professional mermaids

The most famous full-time mermaid in the world right now is Hannah Fraser, or Hannah Mermaid.

The ocean activist and free diver has swam with tiger sharks, sea lions and whales.

In a recent TEDx event in Spain, Fraser told the audience she's a real-life mermaid.

"Before you look at me too funny, let's consider what the word Mermaid actually means. Maid means 'servant' and mer means 'of the sea.' If you prefer, you can call me a Servant of the Sea," she said.

The owner of Halifax Mermaids has also made a career out of the tail. When she's not teaching little mermaids how to swim, she performs at private events and parties.

"It's providing jobs for women everywhere. I employ five women right now and we're expanding and the economy — is that not great in Nova Scotia — so that's saying a lot," said Stephanie Brown who goes by the name Raina Mermaid professionally.

Brown says the adults mermaid community in Canada is in its infancy, but it's huge south of the border.

"There are people who make a full-time living making tails. There are whole troupes of women who perform."

There are also annual mermaid conferences all over the U.S. hosted by different "pods" of sea siren enthusiasts, says Brown.

The very first mermaid

Australian actress Annette Kellerman was the first to wear a swimmable mermaid tail, according to Brown.

Annette Kellerman

In 1911, Australian actress Annette Kellerman starred in the film, "Siren of the Sea." (australia.gov.au)

"She was breaking records for her swimming and was in the first person to be filmed underwater."

Kellerman wore the tail in the 1911 films Siren of the Sea and The Mermaid.

She was also the pioneer of nudity on the silver screen and the one-piece swim suit.

Before Kellerman, women wore baggy dresses and pantaloons to the beach.

Mermaids have been performing at Florida's Weeki Wachee Springs since 1947. In the early years, underwater performers took gulps of air through hoses hidden in the aquatic scenery.

According to The Disneyland Book of Lists, mermaids swam and sunbathed in the Tomorrowland lagoon in the late 1950s and 1960s.

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