A water toy that allows young girls to swim like mermaids is a growing trend — and safety concern — at pools in Calgary and Edmonton.

"My kids' faces just lit up and they're like, 'Holy cow, there's a real live mermaid in the pool!' So we picked them up and ordered them and it's great," said Sharla Stoffman, who purchased "mermaid fins" online for both her daughters.

Stoffman's eight-year-old Scarlett describes the feeling of swimming in the sparkly costume as "free," while her older sister says it's just like being a fish.

"They've been tons of fun, and they move real quick in them," said the Calgary mother.

The craze has much to do with the still-popular 1989 Disney movie The Little Mermaid. 

Mermaids dive in

Sharla Stoffman says her daughter, Jaqui, was already a confident swimmer before she bought her a mermaid tail and monofin. (Sharla Stoffman)

Safety concerns

However, the design of the typical mermaid fin — a fabric tail that goes over both legs, ending with a wide fin — is a safety concern at Alberta pools, and was a hot topic at the annual Alberta Association of Recreation Facility Personnel conference April 26-29 in Banff, Alta.

"They bind legs together and make it difficult to safely manoeuvre in the water," Rob Campbell, supervisor of aquatic strategies for the City of Edmonton told CBC News in an email.

Campbell said Edmonton banned fins at its public pools in April because they are aimed at young children, who are often weak swimmers.

Swimming with a fin "promotes breath-holding which can result in blackouts," said Campbell.

"I was very mad and very, very sad," said nine-year-old Alexis Mayer, who was recently asked to remove her mermaid fin at an Edmonton city pool.

"They told us because our legs are bound together we could drown in the deep end and it would be hard for the lifeguards to come and save us," she added.

The City of Calgary has not written an official policy on mermaid fins, but in the meantime does not allow them to be worn when a pool is crowded.

For now, Calgary lifeguards are making swimmers take the following test before they can wear their toys in a public pool. They must:

  • Swim 25 meters continuously.
  • Tread water for two minutes. 
  • Swim with confidence while wearing the mermaid fin.

"There's concerns that people won't be able to save themselves or they might not be able to make it to the edge or stand up and that's why we have a safety test," said Jack Birkett, aquatic operations co-ordinator for the City of Calgary.

The Lifesaving Society of Alberta recommends pools across the province also adopt a "mermaid swim test," and not ban them.

Parents' responsibility

Stoffman said her daughters were already confident, competitive swimmers before she put them in the mermaid fins.

But ultimately, she said it's up to parents to know their child's swimming ability.

"If you have a kid who is not strong enough, then you shouldn't put them in that tail and shouldn't put them at risk. Or at the very least you should be in the water with them to make sure they're safe," said Stoffman.

She said she has also seen kids as young as three safely wear the tails because their parents made them put on water wings or lifejackets to keep them afloat.

Mermaids underwater

'My kids' faces just lit up,' says Sharla Stoffman after her daughters spotted another swimmer wearing a mermaid costume at a pool. (Sharla Stoffman)

Mermaid school

Parents concerned for their child's safety can also consider mermaid school, which has also caught on with some fitness-minded adults. 

"When you have your legs tied together you're really reaching those abs and then you work your quadriceps and your glutes," said Marielle Chartier-Hénault, founder of Montreal-based AquaMermaid. 

"And it's really good for your cardio also because the main movements are done underwater. So you need to control your breathing while doing an exercise," she said.

The Calgary Winter Club is offering a mermaid camp in August, but it's only open to members and children who have passed Level 5 of the Red Cross kids swimming program.