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Divas of the deep

The four women are all zipped in, their legs pressed tightly together inside their pink and green stretch lame costumes. It's impossible to walk gracefully in a mermaid tail, so they flop on their backsides across the gray tile floor and position themselves on the edge of the big round tube where the water waits.

Viki Monsegur sips a Pepsi and passes it around to the other veteran performers. Jenn Huber is wired and worried: Too much coffee and Sudafed. Sativa Smith has finished her salt and vinegar potato chips. She and Gina Stremplewski dread getting cold again. Derek Brunet, the tailless male performer, hangs out in a chair, motionless, mouth closed.

A woman's voice blares from the small speaker mounted on the wall. "Five minutes," comes the announcement, and the countdown begins. One by one the women slide over the lip of the hole and plunge tail-first into the 74.2-degree water. After 40 minutes at this temperature their lips and cheeks will be numb.

Exhaling makes sinking easy, so immediately after entering the water, each person gives up air. They are ghostly figures trimmed in sequins after they sink 10 feet down, then turn for the 55-foot swim that will carry them to the heart of Weeki Wachee Springs.

You certainly have heard, there are mermaids in Hernando County, and they are the essence of roadside attraction. The sort of place that screams: THIS IS FLORIDA!

The first underwater show at Weeki Wachee was Oct. 13, 1947. A young woman swam 16 feet down to let fish eat out of her hand. Her hair glistened in the pristine water as 14 people watched from an underground theater. There is a photograph in the Weeki Wachee museum to commemorate the moment.

Shows have been presented every day since, and the mermaids say they are the only underwater show in the nation _ perhaps the world _ to rely on hose breathing throughout their performance.

The mermaids of Weeki Wachee never come up for air. They don't stray far from the 11 air hoses that supply them with breath. Their only break from hose breathing comes during costume changes. There is a small air lock 25 feet from the surface where the performers stand in thigh-deep water and rip in and out of costume.

Things have progressed since the fish feeding days. The theater now seats 400 and the performances are all glitter, flash and sparkle.

As Madonna's Vogue vibrates through the underwater sound system, the four women appear in skintight blue bathing suits with matching headbands and armbands. Three-inch silver heels have replaced their tails, but they are still mermaids. As they lock arms and go into a Las Vegas cancan, combusting air bubbles explode behind them. The curtain of brilliant light is triggered by hidden air hoses that force the water upward.

It all seems like an illusion. The locked smiles, the weightless hair, the floating figures there in front of your eyes, 16 feet under water. But the women know different and their fingers remain clenched to the black hose that shoots air into their lungs and sand into their mouths.

To contact Jamie Francis, call (727) 893-8319 or e-mail