‘Down Where It’s Wetter: Mermaids, Menstruation, and Marine Ecology’, by Aimee Knight


Image by Klaus Stiefel. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe there is something the matter with me. I just don’t see how a world that makes such wonderful things could be bad.

— Ariel, The Little Mermaid

Rosie lays resplendent on a big, flat rock. A little girl approaches her.

“You’re not real!” says the six-year-old.

“Of course I am,” says Rosie, flipping her tail.

The kid tentatively touches Rosie’s lower third. It glitters under the Gold Coast sun. Her eyes light up.

‘You are real!’ confirms the little girl, who wanders off.

Rosie is a real-life mermaid, often spotted diving along the coast of South Australia (and, for a while, in a waterpark). She can hold her breath below the surface for two, three, four minutes at a time. She plumbs the depths, descending as low as she likes, equalising her ears and accepting a lung spasm that would have a landlubber hurtling up toward the sun.

But it’s not scary down there. It’s meditative, being stripped of all sensory stimuli. No traffic lights, air conditioners, cats that run around your house too fast or co-workers opening Coke cans in the next cubicle. Under the sea, all you can hear is your heartbeat. You’re utterly within your body.

Plot twist: Rosie is actually a human woman, not a mermaid, nor a manatee, nor a decorative water feature in a town square. Like the beguiling Sirens of Greek mythology, who’d drown a passing sailor soon as look at him, Rosie is a feminist. Rather than lure you to a watery grave, however, she’ll teach you to freedive – just as she’s schooling her aquatic apprentice, Jaana.

Freediving is the practice of slipping underwater sans snorkel or scuba. It can be competitive or recreational, or both, but it is not an adrenaline sport. Freedivers practice diaphragm breathing, streamline their bodies and hone their aquadynamics. They might reach depths of forty metres or more. “The capabilities of the human body are incredible and freediving is about harnessing that. Letting go of your fears and inhibitions,” says Rosie.

By managing the mammalian diving reflex, the human heart rate can be slowed by twenty-five per cent as blood leaves the fingers and toes, en route to the thoracic organs. As such, some freedivers can stay under water for ten minutes and beyond, making them almost as impressive as a dolphin.

“That was my animal of choice when I was growing up,” says Jaana. “They’re so graceful. I always thought they’re so amazing, the way they swim, their tails, streamlined. They’re cute. They felt nice, like a nice animal. That probably came from movies like Flipper, where Flipper helps people and does things for them. I just remember having a really nice feeling about dolphins.”

During Jaana’s youth, there was a wave of cetacean-centric cinema. Free Willy (1993), Zeus and Roxanne (1997), and the great Flipper reboot of 1996. Around this time, Jaana began zealously collecting dolphin paraphernalia – ubiquitous in the bedrooms of bright young women, coming of age in step with the Disney Renaissance. That period of resurgent success for the studio started in 1989 with the release of a film called The Little Mermaid.

Jaana repeatedly watched The Little Mermaid after school at a friend’s house. As the VHS tape rewound, her friend would sit on the toilet, singing “aah aah aaaaaah, aah aah aaaaaah,” like Ariel.

“My interest in the ocean doesn’t stop with mermaids,” says Jaana. “I was the cool kid in the library who used to draw whale tails coming out of the ocean. Everyone thought it was the greatest thing ever and they’d be like, ‘Jaana, can you please draw me a whale tail?’

“It was just the tail shape coming out of the ocean, but that whale tail shape, mermaid tail shape – there was something about that that I was always obsessed with.”

In September 1998, Jaana sat in the Splash Zone at Shamu Stadium, SeaWorld San Diego. The arena’s eponymous superstar orca whirled around her tank, whipping up a whitewater frenzy. She soaked Jaana and rows of eager tweens in her chlorinated bathwater. This was a post-Free Willy, pre-Blackfish world – and actually Shamu died in 1971. Her name was gifted to a roster of killer whales working at various SeaWorlds after her passing. (Since 1961, at least 156 wild orcas have been placed in marine parks across the globe. Pour some out for the 128 whales no longer with us, including—as of January 2017—SeaWorld’s infamous Tilikum.)

“The way SeaWorld was marketed, especially to children, it was this great, magical wonderland of exploring the ocean. Being part of the ocean,” says Jaana. “As a child, I remember being influenced by SeaWorld. It was magic.”

Closer to home, Jaana remembers a mid-1990s trip to Underwater World (now AQWA: The Aquarium of Western Australia) in Perth. “You could see sharks and rays, like SeaWorld but on a smaller scale. There was an open, shallow section where you could see and touch the animals. Those poor animals.”

Rosie is a recovering marine biologist. She completed her Bachelor of Science at the Australian National University, majoring in evolution, ecology and hydrology. Her special subject is the functional morphology of coral reef damselfish. For facts about fish bodies (subcategories: streamlining, fins, mouth shape), Rosie’s your go-to.

A vocal advocate for marine conservation, Rosie became disillusioned with academia and felt stifled in her field. “I got to a point where I realised no amount of research or government policy planning or lobbying or activism is going to fix the world. It’s certainly going to assist, it’s going to be a great bandaid, but none of that is going to stop the root of the problem.” Because the human relationship with the environment is broken, Rosie became a diving instructor shortly after graduation.

By teaching people to freedive, Rosie makes them part of that world – one that was previously out of sight and mind. Freediving transports ordinary citizens from their mundane day-to-days, into a “strange, bizarre world that they suddenly want to experience more of.” She’s seen the ripple effects of freediving result in profound attitudinal changes for her mentees. In Rosie’s own life, such an epiphany came in the form of a menstrual cup.

Say a menstruator has twelve cycles per year from age twelve to age fifty. Say that menstruator uses ten pads and four tampons during each cycle. That’s 6384 sanitary items used over a lifetime, costing a cool $4000, and collectively weighing one non-biodegradable tonne. Say we multiply that by the estimated seven million menstruators living in Australia right now, and we have an annual output of over a billion used sanitary items, headed straight for landfill or worse.

During Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup of 2012, almost 23,000 tampon applicators were found among the whosits and whatsits galore clogging up the world’s waterways and beaches.

“A lot of the microplastics in the sand—the stuff that fish are choking and dying on—comes from tampons and applicators,” Rosie says. These plastics take around twenty-five years to break down in the ocean, meaning a menstruator could flush an applicator down the toilet as a teen, and remnants of it might still remain in the ocean when that person reaches menopause – assuming Flounder doesn’t swallow it first.

A menstrual cup frees up time and resources. Instead of shelling out for a monthly supply of sanitary items—essentially flushing your money down the drain, or, more responsibly, throwing it in a bin—Rosie rinses her silicon sister, resets and forgets.

“As [a diving] instructor, you can’t wear tampons or pads because you’re in the water for six hours or more each day. When you get out it becomes a problem because tampons just fill up with water, then you laugh and cough and there’s pink liquid. It’s not pretty. Hilarious, though,” she says.

The psychological link between our bodies and planet earth is vanishing. “That begins, for women, in our menstrual cycle,” says Rosie. “When you’re a young woman beginning your period, you’re told it’s dirty and something you should be ashamed of.”

So you might start to hate your body, and your lover if they discover you’re bleeding, and your family and friends and strangers who all seem to move through the world unencumbered by anxiety, acne, migraines and the glorified nappy in your knickers. What if that hate doesn’t go away after five days?

“The way we treat our planet is pretty closely linked to that taboo instinct with our cycles,” Rosie says.

Amanda stands in the town square in a southern part of Helsinki. Naked and green, four fish are frozen at her feet. She’s almost two metres tall and more than a hundred years old (though she doesn’t look a day over eighteen). Passersby call her ‘Havis Amanda’ or ‘Manta’, but her given name is Merenneito: the mermaid.

Plot twist: Amanda is actually a decorative water feature, not a human woman, nor an orca, nor a menstrual cup. While she’s as inert as Daryl Hannah’s performance in Splash, her birthday suit sparked a Finnish furore upon her debut in Kaartinkaupunki’s Market Square.

In September of 1908, sculptor Carl Wilhelm ‘Ville’ Vallgren unveiled his bronze beauty to Helsinki’s citizens – and, look, they weren’t stoked. “You’ve represented this young lady solely as an object of heterosexual male desire,” said one woke woman, still riding the wave of common suffrage introduced in Finland two years prior. “You’ve subjected her to the pervasive male gaze care of the four slobbering sea lions baying at her feet,” says another.

Ville is confused. “How could it be sexist? I worship women!” The crowd shakes its collective head.

Cut to: present day. Raucous but well-meaning pupils from The Helsinki University of Technology wash Amanda down, as per the yearly custom of Vappu. That’s a spring holiday in honour of labour, students, workers and political activism. Once Amanda is spick and span, a rep from the student union crowns her with a graduation cap.

“Near to the Hakaniemi Market this is a nice fountain,” says Andy H, a TripAdvisor commenter from Caerphilly, United Kingdom. “[H]owever other descriptions I have read say that it is a mermaid, I did not get that as I thought that mermaids had a fish type tail but this statue has feet.”

Everyone wants to meet a real-life mermaid.

The coastal Isreali community of Kiryat Yam got themselves in a flap when average guy Shlomo Cohen claimed to have seen a sunbathing mermaid in

  1. The local government offered a $1 million dollar reward for photographic evidence. To date, the prize pool remains unclaimed.

    Sam Sipepa Nkomo is the Water Resources Minister of Zimbabwe. In 2012, he reported the presence of meddling mermaids to a senate committee, who were curious as to why work had ceased on reservoirs near Gokwe and Mutare. When the workforce wouldn’t return to the dams, Nkomo ordered the performance of a traditional ritual to exorcise the mermaids from the sites.

    A year later, Animal Planet aired the divisive TV special Mermaids: The New Evidence. It featured a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist describing his encounter with a mermaid off the coast of Greenland. Truthers were disappointed to learn that the scientist was an actor named David Evans. Here’s his IMDb page.

    For a time, mermaids could be seen in a floor-to-ceiling aquarium in the Adelaide nightclub Atlantis Lounge Bar. In January 2016, during the lead-up to the club’s launch, management announced the hot spot’s hook: two hammerhead sharks occupying a 25,000-litre tank. This caused a flurry of both media attention and civilian outrage. When 40,000 people signed an online petition against the proposal, the club’s owners decided to use mermaids instead. Atlantis is where first-generation Australian Jaana, born of a Finnish bloodline, first worked with Rosie, her merteacher-to-be.

    In October 2016, Rosie worked at Sea World on the Gold Coast. For two weeks she did nine shows a day in Shark Bay: swimming in front of the glass, waving at kids, watching the cow sharks and sting rays and tropical fish whose tank she shared. Being a real life mermaid.

    At 8am one morning she was in the hotel lift, holding a postcard. A little girl approached her.

    “What’s that?” asked the five-year-old.

    “It’s a postcard for Shark Bay,” said Rosie.

    “Ew,” said the little girl.

    “Are you gonna go to Shark Bay?” Rosie asked.

    “Oh, no!” confirmed the little girl.

    “I heard there are mermaids there,” said Rosie, not yet wearing her tail.

    “Mummy, mummy, let’s go to Shark Bay!” said the little girl.

    Rosie believes we’ve reached a point where ‘sustainability’ is a cliché. “There’s not actually that much from our society that’s worth sustaining in the way we relate to our environment. I think we need to move into a regenerative phase.”

    Ecology is the study of living organisms on Earth, and how they all interrelate. “There’s nothing you can do in your life that doesn’t have an effect on the rest of the world. That’s where it all ties together for me, looking at marine environments, our relationships with our bodies, and the way we treat each other and the world,” says Rosie.

    “Maybe I’ll create an education program where little girls learn to be menstrual mermaids.”

    Aimee Knight’s words appear on and in The Big Issue, Little White Lies, Kill Your Darlings and more. She digs gender equality, sexual diversity, intersectionality and good mental health.