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A Florida veteran became a mermaid. Now she teaches Wounded Warriors.

Meet the Military Mermaids, who use fantasy for healing, at Fairgrounds St. Pete on Veterans Day.
 
Florida artist, mermaid and veteran Iona Parris teaches a "Military Mermaid" class through the Wounded Warrior Project.
Florida artist, mermaid and veteran Iona Parris teaches a "Military Mermaid" class through the Wounded Warrior Project. [ Courtesy of Iona Parris ]
Published Nov. 9, 2023|Updated Nov. 10, 2023

A fantasy world of seashells and fins helped one Florida veteran find healing. Now she’s on a mission to “empower veterans, one splash at a time.”

Riverview-based artist Iona Parris, known to nearly 15,000 Instagram followers as the Seashell Queen, has been teaching therapeutic Military Mermaid classes through the Wounded Warrior Project.

“It feels wonderful to build that camaraderie together and have each other to lean on, with all of us going through similar experiences,” Parris said.

Related: Beyond Weeki Wachee: How Florida’s freelance merman got TikTok-famous

Her students bond over shared history while swimming in mermaid tails and crafting with shells. They will be dressed in full mermaid regalia for a morning of photo opportunities and meet-and-greets at Fairgrounds St. Pete on Veterans Day.

Iona Parris the Seashell Queen, in the center with pink hair, poses with the “Military Mermaid Drill Instructors" who help facilitate classes for veterans. Carrie Wata, left, is the owner and founder of Afro Mermaid Summit. To her right is the mermaid Caribbean Pearl. At far right is Merman Akylis.
Iona Parris the Seashell Queen, in the center with pink hair, poses with the “Military Mermaid Drill Instructors" who help facilitate classes for veterans. Carrie Wata, left, is the owner and founder of Afro Mermaid Summit. To her right is the mermaid Caribbean Pearl. At far right is Merman Akylis. [ Courtesy of Iona Parris ]

Parris, 35, turned to seashells after returning from her first deployment in 2010. Parris had developed anxiety and PTSD during her time in the Air Force. Whenever she felt down, she would pick up a shell from the collection on her dresser and paint it with nail polish.

Parris started selling her shell art under the business name Seashell Queen Collection after she left the military. Her sister encouraged her to bring her pieces to art shows. To boost sales, she dressed like a mermaid.

By 2021, Parris’ work attracted an invitation to the Afro Mermaid Summit, where she met a whole pod of multicultural sirens in South Florida. They taught her how to swim both in and out of a tail. She realized how loving and supportive the mermaid community was.

“It wasn’t a competition. It was really about the love,” she said.

Back in Tampa Bay, Parris pitched a series of mermaid classes to the Wounded Warrior Project, where she helps disabled veterans as a peer mentor. The original suggestion was turned down. Then “The Little Mermaid” movie and Netflix’s docuseries “MerPeople” (which includes shots of Parris and the Afro Mermaids) came out in May.

Parris was able to secure funding for 10 mermaid students, including tails they could use. She hosted her first mermaid class in September. Since then, five more students have joined. The classes, which are free to attend and open to all genders, mostly take place in neighborhood pools.

Liz Dimmitt, CEO and co-founder of Fairgrounds St. Pete, said the Military Mermaids fit right in at the museum. Parris is one of over 70 artists with work on display. The immersive museum is anchored by a neon-soaked “Mermaid Star Motel” and is known to host mermaid-themed events.

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“Mermaids and merfolk, they bring that magic to Florida and are part of our Florida lore,” Dimmitt said.

“We’re looking forward to honoring their service, but also their human resiliency and the special Florida stories they have.”

Fairgrounds St. Pete, which hosted a Mystical Mermaid Day in March, is honoring Military Mermaids on Veterans Day.
Fairgrounds St. Pete, which hosted a Mystical Mermaid Day in March, is honoring Military Mermaids on Veterans Day. [ Courtesy of Fairgrounds St. Pete. ]

Meet the Military Mermaids

Iona Parris and the Military Mermaids will be meeting guests and taking photos at Fairgrounds St. Pete from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday. Veterans and active-duty military will receive free admission to Fairgrounds St. Pete from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. The art and technology museum is at 2606 Fairfield Ave. S. in St. Petersburg. Visit fairgrounds.art for more information on hours and artists.

For more information on Parris, visit seashellqueen.com or follow @officialseashellqueen on Instagram. Part of her proceeds from her art goes back to Military Mermaids. To learn more about the mermaid classes, including how to sign up, visit militarymermaids.org.