Lila Jones, The Real Life Mermaid
BY MICHAELA FARNHAM
No, I am not kidding. Being a real life mermaid is a thing! This week we spoke to Lila Jones, real life mermaid, marine biologist and owner of Mermaid Dream Retreats.
Hi Lila! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a professional mermaid and marine biologist living on the island of Maui (@mermaid_lila). I graduated Hawaii Pacific University in 2013 and began working as a fisheries observer based in Dutch Harbor, Alaska that same summer. While I loved my time up there, my final contract left me a little worse for wear. I moved back to Hawaii, this time residing on Maui to open a mermaid school and teach people about the ocean. Over the last 3 years that has evolved into me creating life-changing week long Mermaid Retreats (@Mermaid.dream.retreats) where I teach people about ocean safety, how to swim like a mermaid, and ocean conservation. I now do public speaking events across the country discussing artistry and its link to conservation and ethical interactions with wildlife. I also developed an instructor specialty with NAUI for mermaid swimming.
Wow! That is amazing! What drew you to becoming a mermaid in the first place?
The story of how I became a mermaid is a very strange one and I go more in depth in my book, “To Become A Mermaid.” While I had always been connected to the water, it was not until I was working on my first boat in Alaska that I realized just how connected I was. It was more than just admiration and curiosity; it was my Source for spirituality. When I realized that the fisheries observer job was not bringing me joy, and had actually left me with PTSD, I changed gears. I had to think about what made me happy. Talking to people and showing them the beauty of the ocean is what brings me the most happiness. I figured doing it as a mermaid would integrate some fun and whimsy with it.
What does a day in the life of a mermaid look like?
No two days are the same. On any day I’m up at 5 am. If I don’t have a mermaid lesson or tour then I will do behind the scenes work to help promote my retreats and dive programs and training in our local pool for movement, breath hold, etc. If I am doing a lesson then my morning is spent transforming people into mermaids and teaching them about Hawaii’s reefs, the threats it’s facing, and useful ways they can help. When I’m running one of the retreats I’m almost unreachable. My time is spent coaching mermaids in the morning and ensuring everyone is safe and enjoying themselves. The retreats are fun though, that’s when we have adventures like swimming with whale sharks, sea lions, or restoring coral reefs. Events are also really fun. I get to travel and meet people all across the country to help them understand that being a mermaid is more than just looking pretty in a tail. It’s creation of ocean ambassadors.
Being a mermaid is perhaps not the most ‘conventional’ way to promote ocean conservation, but how do you hope your voice and work will influence others?
I know my work changes people. You can see it during the swims. What I do is create connection and awaken this playful side in people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people go from quiet and shy on land to confident in the water. It changes people. There’s some instances where I have people just floating in their mermaid tail staring at the reef, and you can just tell that connection is being created and that connection helps fuel change.
My speaking events are always fun because it creates a new perspective for a lot of people. Lots of people don’t see artists as change makers or influencers but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. When I do my talk on ethical interactions it’s usually to a group of other professional mermaids who don’t even realize that handling wild animals can harm them.
Everything is about education and connection. I have had mermaids who I’ve watched grow from a couple of lessons and are now SCUBA divers. I’ve had mermaids who come back a year later and remember most of what I taught them the first time around and I’ve had parents reach out telling me how their kids were sharing all the information they learned as a mermaid with everyone.
It’s definitely not conventional, but it seems to be effective.
Why do you connect so strongly with mermaids?
It’s odd to say I’m connected to mermaids but I suppose it’s what they represent. They’re a bridge of sorts. Part land, part sea. To me it’s a reminder that what we do on land affects what happens in the sea. Even my tail design of a butterfly wing on my fluke serves as a reminder to inspire that connection within others. Mermaids, to me, also represent a bridge between the fantasy and spiritual and the real world. The type of change we need to see in the world needs to be profound. If I can touch people’s spirit, let their inner-child out for a play, and show them not just how beautiful the ocean is but WHY it should be cared for, and that creates a change or a shift in their day-to-day life, then I’ve done my job.
What is one thing you wish someone had told you a long time ago?
You do not need another persons permission or approval to do something you love. Just do it. If it doesn’t work out then you still win because you learned something in the process. Just don’t waste your time looking to others to tell you it’s ok. Only you can do that. Choose you.
What are some tips you would give to someone wanting to become a mermaid like you?
It’s easy to look at the success of other mermaids and perceive that this career is easy. It’s not. It’s not just throwing on a tail and doing some makeup. I’m a dive professional and certified first aid, lifeguard, SCUBA, Freediver, and hold a degree in marine biology. I’ve spent 3 years now practicing and expanding my skill set. There’s loads of training involved and some business knowledge that’s good to have under your belt. It truly is an investment of time and money. Many mermaids have day jobs to help them make ends meet.
To put it in perspective, my performance mermaid tail cost $800 (they average closer to $2,000-3,000), I’ve spent probably $1000 on applicable safety certifications, and another $1000 or so on insurance each year. That doesn’t include travel expenses, or purchasing the tails for my students to use.
Also, don’t think that becoming a mermaid means you’re leaving science behind. I’ve had people dismissing my career thinking that I’ve, “thrown my degree away.” I’m still in contact with previous professors and collaborate with scientists to help create awareness campaigns for certain ocean conservation issues. I still read papers, I still submit testimony for legislation, and I’m still involved. I think the biggest misconception is that I’m somehow not using my degree as a mermaid when that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
I suppose my final tip I learned when sailing with Sea Education Association. Don’t worry about the destination, it’s all about the journey.
Follow Lila @mermaid_lila
Follow Mermaid Dream Retreats @Mermaid.dream.retreats