When mermaids are not creatures of myth

Katrin Felton with Malaysian mermaid Kaitlyn Goh Khai

The titular character, Ariel, in Disney's animated film The Little Mermaid, yearned to be human. Katrin Felton, however, had always longed to be a mermaid since she first saw the movie at age 5.

She had spent many hours sitting in the bathtub with her outstretched legs crossed together, hoping they would turn into a mermaid's tail.

Her wish did not materialise but she pressed on and asked her father to make a mermaid costume for her.

Not amused, her father told her sternly: "You will drown if you swim with your legs together".

Though she gave up on the idea awhile after that, she started practising swimming with her feet together, like a mermaid or a dolphin, when she was swimming with her friends.

"Mermaids do not have knees so I practised the art of swimming without moving my knees," Felton or Mermaid Kat told the New Sunday Times.

"The movement comes from the centre of the body," she said, while gesturing at the stomach, and laughingly added, "then I have to push my buttocks out".

After years of practice, the mermaid movement became second nature to the 27-year-old scuba-diving instructor.

She had learnt scuba diving and free-diving because of her love of the ocean and the lessons taught her how to hold her breath underwater for longer periods of time.

At home, she would practise breath-holding techniques to get used to the feeling.

"Just before you dive, you take in a deep breath. Your brain tells you to breathe immediately after you submerge in the water but you have to fight that feeling because your body has enough air for awhile."

Felton was so accustomed to the breathing exercises that she would also practise while sleeping.

"I would dream about swimming in the ocean with other mermaids and sometimes my husband will notice I am holding my breath in my sleep!"

When this happens, Felton will wake up in the night, and take a deep breath before falling back to sleep.

Surprisingly, it was only about a year ago that Felton received her first mermaid tail.

It was a simple tail sewn with fabric, which she described as "good enough for photoshoots on the beach" but "not suitable for mermaid swimming".

Monofin -- a single fin attached to two foot pockets for a diver's feet, typically used in free-diving -- was better as material for a mermaid's fin, she said, as it gave a mermaid speed.

She had ordered a customised monofin recently, which set her back about US$400 (RM1,230). Then, she had gathered some neoprene (wetsuit material) and sewed them together, with a long zip at the side, to create a mermaid's tail.

The tail took two months to complete, including painting five layers of scale patterns on it with red and black latex paint.

Having swum in Germany, Australia and Thailand, Felton has had ample opportunity to be a professional mermaid in the past year as she was booked for charity events, advertisements, photoshoots and environmental awareness programmes.

She even attended a mermaid convention in Las Vegas, United States, last year, where awards were given out to the best mermaid videos and photographs and all sorts of mermaid-related equipment, games and books were on sale.

Felton is planning to coach other potential "professional mermaids" and said Malaysia was a good training ground because of the warm climate and proximity to the sea.

There will be many aspects to her future training, such as free-diving, underwater modelling, theory and equalisation techniques.

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