DUNNELLON — Andrew Corter sat up on his beach mat next to the edge of the swimming hole, wriggling into the tight red tail one leg at a time.
Corter, known to his 132,000 TikTok followers as @mermanandrew, makes his living underwater. In tanks and aquariums across North America, he’s delighted audiences while staying below the surface for two to four minutes at a time.
But before he would plunge into the 12-foot-deep waters of Rainbow Springs State Park, it was time to breathe. He lay back and closed his eyes, counting as he pulled air into his lungs.
Five of Corter’s mer-friends giggled as they dangled their tails off the edge of the dock into the 72-degree spring, waiting for him to start filming social media content. To have this job straight out of a childhood dream — and attract the swankier, $350-an-hour gigs — you have to sell the fantasy.
While Corter barrel-rolled and backflipped below the surface, he would need to remain personable, attractive and at ease in the water. He’d also have to work fast, before his eyes turned pink and his chest shook from the cold.
He counted to three, then slid into the water.
Corter woke up that morning at 4:45, early enough to gulp down a protein shake and pack a 40-pound silicone tail in the trunk of his SUV.
The New Jersey native and merman of five years had just moved from St. Petersburg to a new home near The Villages. Corter, 29, hoped the Central Florida location would mean easier access to springs and events. Leaving at dawn, he still drove an hour to be among the first in line.
Inside the park, the lap swimmers circling the swimming hole ignored Corter and his pod of mermaids, who each dragged a rolling cart piled with tails and camera equipment. The regulars were used to seeing merpeople on early weekday mornings.
We’re living through an era of peak mer-mania. Disney’s new take on “The Little Mermaid” has grossed over $417 million worldwide so far. Summer means high traffic at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, where underwater performers have lured travelers since 1947. And just a few weeks ago, Netflix released a four-part documentary series called “MerPeople,” which focuses on sub-aquatic entertainers near and far. Corter and his friends were among the local “mersonas” featured.
Underwater activist Michelle Colson stripped off her fuzzy bathrobe to reveal a white seashell bra underneath. To the roughly 950,000 TikTok followers that she educates on single-use plastics and manatee conservation, she is known as @guardianofthesprings. To Corter, she is a best friend and filming partner.
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Model Felicia Flaherty (TikTok’s @feliciawithfins, with 1.7 million followers) adjusted starfish hair clips. Haley Smith (@mslunamarie to half a million on TikTok) had already locked in her makeup with three different kinds of setting spray. Her husband and “mertender,” Michael Lugo, waited in the water with his GoPro.
Mermen Corter and Eric Ducharme, who gained celebrity status in the industry making tails as “the Mertailor,” found prepping easier. Each simply wore scale-print leggings underneath their tails to stay warm. All Mertailor-made.
Balancing on a pile of rocks, Corter directed the video shoot: Women posed together first, then the men. Cloth tail wearers next, then silicone. Each performer swam with eyes open and arms outstretched, rolling their torsos and hips in sync.
In reality, treading water for the better part of an hour was exhausting. In their posts, the pros would make it look effortless.
Keeping the cameras rolling
“So, inquiring minds have to know,” said the waitress, setting drinks down on the picnic table. “What are you guys videoing for?”
After their morning swim, Corter’s pod had driven down the road to meet at Swampy’s Bar & Grille — partially to refuel, but also to swap content. Huddled over a platter of corn fritters, the merpeople airdropped video snippets, punctuating their favorites with a squeal or a “shell, yeah!” Since behind-the-scenes clips also perform well, the meal itself had turned into another opportunity for content.
It started in the gravel parking lot. Smith, who owns a clothing line called Crescent Creepers with her husband, got footage of new overalls as Flaherty and Colson modeled. Waiting at the host stand, the group recorded selfie boomerangs. They were seated outside next to Rainbow River. Half of the mers wandered to the shoreline, phones in hand.
By the time the waitress asked her question, Corter was ready with his elevator pitch.
“My name is Andrew. I’m a professional merman. We are all professional mermaids,” he said. He already knew what was coming next.
“Are you guys out of Weeki Wachee?”
“We are free-rein mermaids,” he replied.
“We work for ourselves,” Colson added. “We’re not captive.”
“Every single time,” she added after the waitress left. “I almost want to have a pin that says ‘No, I am not a Weeki Wachee mermaid.’ Love them, but no.”
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park has inspired many of today’s professional merpeople. After the mid-century roadside attraction slapped tails on its underwater ballet dancers, word spread quickly. Elvis came to visit. So did a stream of filmmakers.
Working at the park these days isn’t for everybody. The mermaids, who are also state employees, are only paid $15 an hour to start. Corter can charge over 20 times that as a freelance merman. If that number seems high, consider the cost of doing business.
Custom tails run thousands of dollars. Then you have to learn how to safely swim in one. Corter opted for both free dive training and numerous mermaid courses from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. He estimated he’s spent $3,000 on certifications and over $20,000 on tails.
To build stamina and look camera-ready, he hits the gym five to six times a week. Three times a week, he meets Colson to train in the water.
“Even when I’m not in a tail, I’m out at the springs,” he said. “I’m diving, even if it’s only with fins on. I’m practicing — practicing depth, practicing staying down, practicing facial expressions.”
Having fishy friends helps. They share tails and tips. Plus, they keep each other safe in deep waters. During Mermaid Mondays, merfluencers from around the state choose a spring for a meetup. Having allies who understand underwater angles is crucial.
“I haven’t been asked for an actual resume,” said Coral Dover, who is approaching 300,000 TikTok followers as @the_sporty_mermaid. “They’re just like, send me all of your social media.”
“It’s almost sad now,” Smith added. “Because even when you do a photo shoot underwater, you have to have somebody getting behind the scenes so you can make a Reel out of the photo shoot.”
Kid’s birthday parties aren’t enough to pay the bills, Corter said. He shoots for swanky corporate shindigs, renaissance faire contracts and big aquarium shows. He often travels out of state for work.
“I hate to say it, but Florida doesn’t want mermaids in their aquariums,” he said. “Trust me, we tried.”
Weeki Wachee still dominates. Their former employee, Ducharme, broke off to open his own business: Mertailor’s Mermaid Aquarium Encounter in Lecanto. The attraction, which has a prominent plot line in “MerPeople,” offers shows of its own.
As for the other merformers?
“It’s ironic,” Corter said. “It’s harder to be a mermaid in Florida than it is anywhere else.”
Launching a Merman Mafia
“No, stop. Back,” Colson said as Corter reached for the door handle. “Gotta get those angles, bro.”
Corter had arrived at Mertailor’s Mermaid Aquarium Encounter with just a few minutes to spare before the 1 p.m. show. Colson trailed behind him, a shadow wielding a cellphone, to ensure the moment was captured perfectly.
Corter strutted through the entrance of his friend’s undersea world.
Opened inside a former furniture store, Mertailor now has a cinematic, bottom-of-the-ocean vibe. The interior is dimly lit and slightly chilly, with a briny smell and a soundtrack provided by squawking parrots. The main attraction: lots and lots of tanks.
Interactive touch tanks filled with sea stars and stingrays. Tanks for fish, turtles and zebra moray eels. And the floor-to-ceiling, 15,000-gallon aquarium tank on the right. Its inhabitants include sharks, 10 types of fish and live mermaids.
Spectators, including Corter and his friends, filled all six rows that Tuesday afternoon. They applauded as the tip of a tail fluttered into view. Then, the rest of the merman sank to the bottom.
Light bounced through the water, reflecting off the scales covering Ducharme’s lower half. The top of his hyper-realistic tail melted into his torso. Other than the air hose, which he used to inhale without surfacing, he really did look half-fish.
“This is what I do, but all over the country,” Corter whispered.
Unlike the mermaids who grew up wishing for gills, Corter instead dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer. He was on swim teams, but terrified of the ocean. After dance school, he worked in cosmetics, then in alcohol sales and events. At an LGBTQ mixer Corter was working in Sarasota, the mermaid performer never showed up. There was, however, a spare tail waiting.
“I was like, ‘You know what? I’ll put it on. I’ll sit in the pool and flop around,’” he remembered. “That was the second that I fell in love with it. I felt like I was doing a modern dance with a tail on that was an extension of me.”
Ducharme was at the very next event Corter was scheduled to work. Corter took it as a sign. Five years and 117,000 Instagram fans later, he is now the most followed merman on the platform.
For most of his career, Corter has booked others under the name Trident Tails Entertainment. He sends merfolk, fire dancers and underwater burlesque performers to parties and renaissance festivals. Then friends pointed out that Corter wasn’t spending enough time focusing on his own brand.
In March, Corter traveled to Canada’s Aquatarium to perform in 55-degree waters for two weeks. One by one, his videos from that run went viral. The same thing happened after a gig in Las Vegas and another at Dragon Con in Atlanta. In the last six months, his Instagram following of roughly 2,000 shot up.
As Ducharme flipped and lip-synced underwater, Corter teared up. It was the first time seeing his friend swim in his own tank.
For every 50 mermaids, Corter estimates, there’s only one merman. Recently, he launched a new troupe called Merman Mafia. He wants to help others like him to break into the industry.
“I struggled myself, like I would watch all of my girls book events, and it was awesome for my friends,” he said. “But I wanted to be on the stage.”
After the show, children pressed their hands to the glass to say hello. Corter waited his turn to snap photos to post. After all, Florida merpeople have to hype each other up.
Then it was time to head separate ways — to edit videos, to lead a trash cleanup, to take a well-deserved nap.
As for Corter? It was back to the springs for more content.
“Just bringing magic to the entire world, one tail flip at a time,” he said.
Meet the merman
Andrew Corter, aka Merman Andrew, will be doing a dunk the merman event during St. Pete Pride’s Pride in Grand Central Street Carnival on Sunday, June 25. The free event takes place in the Grand Central District from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Follow along on TikTok and Instagram at @mermanandrew or visit mermanandrew.com for more information. Watch Corter and his friends in “MerPeople,” now streaming on Netflix.