Please introduce yourself and where you are from and your background.
I am Lila Jones; I work as a mermaid on the beautiful island of Maui. I am a NAUI instructor and creator of the NAUI Mermaid program. I hold a degree in Marine biology from Hawaii Pacific University and have been an active part in the mermaid community teaching other mermaids about proper marine stewardship.
When did you first start your diving education?
I earned my Open Water certification in 2007. I have always loved water and was excited to talk my dad into buying scuba classes. I figured I would need it for work as a marine biologist exploring the underwater world.
What made you want to become a professional mermaid?
I originally turned to mermaiding as a creative outlet. I enjoy talking to people and introducing them to life under the sea. I figured incorporating mermaid experiences was the easiest way to help people really connect with the marine environment and help empower the next generation of stewards and divers. It has been amazing to watch students experience life on the coral reef in mermaid tails and then go on to become certified mermaids and certified scuba divers.
How do you become a mermaid? What steps did you take to get to where you are today?
Going the route of a professional mermaid is a large investment of time and money. To put it in perspective, at a minimum professional mermaids need to be certified as a lifeguard. That course alone typically runs $350 and needs to be renewed every two years. Then there is the back of house aspects of a business which includes licensing, insurance, website design etc. I had to learn the business basics, and this was all before I could even put a tail on!
Along with the in-water safety aspect comes the dive certifications. When I first started as a mermaid instructor, I earned my Skin Diving Instructor certification from NAUI. By that point I had already been teaching mermaid lessons, but that certification added another layer of open water credentials. This also paved the way for the NAUI Mermaid Certifications creation as an instructor specialty that later became standardized.
What is the hardest part of being a mermaid?
There is a lot of external pressure to conform to a certain image when it comes to mermaiding. There is this strange notion that mermaids need to have a perfect hourglass shape which is amusing since they are mythological creatures. Still, I get people looking at me quite judgmentally because of my size or even because I am a mermaid performer. It is sad to see that there are people in the world who have become so jaded that they cannot see the magic right in front of them.
How long did it take for you to become a mermaid?
I started my professional career in 2015, but I have always been attached to the ocean. My dad was an abalone diver in California growing up. It was a rite of passage to get to go out on the zodiac in the morning, all geared up, and jump in the water. Ariel from The Little Mermaid was my princess growing up, and when I was 5 my heart was set on becoming a marine biologist. The ocean is my passion, and it has been a lifelong journey of being a mermaid.
The mermaid tail, what can you tell us about it? Is it hard to use, and how did you choose your specific tail?
There are three basic types of tails: Lycra, neoprene, and silicone. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages.
Lycra tails are lightweight and the same material as a swimsuit. The monofins can be soft or stiff depending on the maker, but overall are geared towards mermaids just starting out. They have some really nice designs, and help students fine tune their dolphin kick movement. I usually teach and demonstrate in Lycra tails since they are easy to maintain and remove.
Neoprene and scuba knit tails are the next step up. They also offer the advantage of being lightweight and durable. The printing quality on the major brands is top notch and looks quite realistic. The downside is the monofins. Neoprene tails often have larger flukes which tail makers handle one of two ways. Either they have a large silicone monofin that fits the entire shape of the fluke, or vinyl inserts to help the fluke keep its shape. With the bigger flukes there is a possibility of increased drag. The dolphin kick technique must be fine-tuned to get the most forward movement out of these types of fins.
Silicone tails are the higher end realistic looking tails. These tails are often reserved for performances and are custom sized and designed by the individual. These tails require a lot of maintenance and can last many years when cared for properly. However, it is easy to get minor nicks and tears which need special materials to repair properly.
The tails I own range in price. The least expensive ones that I use for lessons sell for around $100. My neoprene tail cost $850, and my silicone tail that is reserved for tank performances ran $4,500. This does not include matching tops, makeup, and other accessories for performances.
How many tails do you own?
I will preface the answer to this question with the disclosure that I run mermaid swim programs. I own 20-30 Lycra tails, 2 neoprene/scuba knit tails, and 2 silicone tails.
Besides the tail, what other pieces of equipment are vital to being a mermaid?
Personal Protective equipment! Mermaids overlook this but it is VITAL. First aid kits, lifeguard tubes, goggles, nose plugs, eye rinse, etc. All these things are vital to being a good mermaid. I feel that even mermaids at the top professional levels do not stress this enough, mermaiding is overall a safe sport but it is important to know how to care for yourself and your body during this activity.
What type of jobs are out there for mermaids like yourself?
I have made my mark in the mermaid industry as an instructor. While I love performing, teaching and education is my passion. I often do talks to other professional mermaids about ethical wildlife interactions as well as how to mermaid safely.
There are performance jobs out there, but they are few and far between for some. It is tough when you are just getting started marketing your services to clients. You can always join an established performance company, but do not expect it to be your full-time work.
What is your fondest memory of being a mermaid?
I have a few and most seem to have happened during lessons and certification classes. One day I ran a class where everything just got off to a rough start. I had locked the tails in the car and so I waited and talked with my students (9-year-old twins) about mermaids while my friend brought my spare keys down. Eventually the lesson got underway, and we got into the water. The kids had an absolute blast but at the end a paddle boarder came over and asked for my assistance with a sea turtle that was wrapped up in an anchor line. I brought the kids over and stopped them at a safe distance with a strict, “You can watch, but I need you to stay here, I don’t want the turtle to be more scared than she already is.” I swam over, in a tail, and quickly unwrapped the line from her fin to have her swim off. The girls and I went back to shore and the way they joyfully told their dad how they rescued a turtle filled my heart up. One of the girls even told me, “I bet that turtle was a mermaid in disguise and she was seeing if we’d help her.”
The other memories I have are of the “awe” moment students get in introductory lessons. There is this moment when the students are in a tail, swimming along the reefs here in Maui, that something just shifts in them. There is this joy, happiness, and awe seeing the reef as a mermaid. I know it happens with divers as well, but with mermaids it just feels more magical to me.
I also adore the times when during the open water portion of mermaid certification classes, we have really cool critters swim by. So far, we have been graced with manta rays, sea lions, whale sharks, reef sharks, spotted eagle rays, and one bottlenose dolphin.
For people who are first starting their mermaid journey, what advice would you give them?
The tail does not make the mermaid. If you wait to be a mermaid because you think your body is not ‘right’ for it, I encourage you to have the courage to be a mermaid anyway. Find joy in the activity. It is a chance to let your inner child play.
The NAUI Mermaid Certification Program; can you elaborate on the specifics and what potential mermaids can expect during their training and how they can get involved?
I have had the honor of training quite a few mermaids who are already at a professional level. One of the main things I hear is that the course is more challenging than they expected but they learn a great deal. It is at the end of the day, a standardized dive course that allows the certificate holder certain privileges.
We go into the basics and the components of the mermaid tail and the equipment. We cover physiological responses like the mammalian dive reflex, equalizing air spaces, and proper dive technique. The course has a major chapter on safety which teaches buddy and self-rescue as well as accident prevention.
This is not to say the course is not fun, we teach the basics of underwater modeling and posing and if time permits, we teach different tricks mermaids can do as well. The goal is to increase safety among hobbyist and professional mermaids alike.
I feel the course is well rounded and enjoyable for students.
We know you are speaking at MerMagic Con this year; can you give us a sneak peek into what topics you will be discussing?
My main talk is on Conservation and Environmental Activism in mermaiding. There are so many mermaids who want to make a difference in the environment and inspire positive change in their communities. The only downside is many do not know where to start. It is common that some of these conservation campaigns end up harassing wildlife in order to get the conservation message across. We also discuss costume components and their impacts on the environment from a physical and chemical perspective.
For MerMagic Con, what are you most looking forward to at the convention this year?
Every year I look forward to the Gala. The convention itself is fun and there is so many wonderful panels and speakers and classes, but the Gala is where we get to go all out in crazy wonderful outfits and dance the night away.
This year, I am most excited about teaching the NAUI Mermaid Certification. I have gone to every MerMagic Con since the beginning, and I am so happy to have a chance to offer this class to everyone.
To learn more about MerMagic Con, please visit https://mermagic-con.com/
Photography Credit: Cassie Pali of Casafras Photography and Lauren Wylie as the Photographers.