There’s something unusual happening below the surface of an Espoo swimming pool. Two adults, a man and a woman, wearing what appear to be fish tails are frolicking in the invitingly clear blue water, almost as if they were a pair of real-life mermaids.
It turns out they are learning how to swim like the fantasy creatures by wearing a novel piece of apparel that combines a monofin flipper with fabric from waist to fin to create the distinctive mermaid tail.
“I’m a swimming instructor, so I swim a lot but I never learned to do the mermaid movement,” says Eva-Lena Gastrin, as her pink tail swishes back and forth in the water.
The mermaid swimming, or ‘mermaiding’ classes at the commercial Sporttaamo leisure centres in Espoo and Helsinki are run by swimming instructor Maija Möttönen.
Möttönen says her classes don’t discriminate along gender or age lines, and that anyone’s welcome. The only requirement is that you can swim 50 metres.
“I think last year there were more kids who were mermaiding, but we now we have also a lot of adults who have found this hobby,” she says.
“It’s hard to estimate exact numbers but I would say that last year there were maybe 20 adults. I have had over 100 new mermaid students, most of them have been adults.”
Mermaid swimming has taken off in Finland, and perhaps understandably so in the land of 100,000 lakes. Although the fantasy creature was popularised by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in well-known fairy tale “The Little Mermaid”, mermaid myths appear in many cultures across the world. Finnish legend mentions a merman or “vetehinen”, a fabled character who is often cast as mischievous and sometimes as helpful.
The Finnish national epic Kalevala, a treasured collection of local folklore, devotes books four and five to the story of Aino, a young woman who drowns herself and joins the muses rather that marry an obnoxious old man. Aino thus becomes the representation of a mermaid in Finnish lore.
The two modern-day merpeople in the pool when Yle News visits are swimming instructor Gastrin and Markus Parviainen, a construction worker from Vantaa.
Parviainen says he was a bit nervous when he started mermaiding, as he says it can be perceived as something young girls do. “But I think that I don’t need to care about people’s opinions. I also want to be an example for guys.”
“Most people have taken this in a very positive way,” he adds.
Möttönen got into mermaiding after reading about it online. She then connected with the international mermaid community on Instagram, where she shares pictures and video of her underwater exploits.
“My mermaid Instagram account is a way to talk with other mermaids, share videos and photos and get inspired by other mermaids and mermen. And of course, it’s also a way to tell people about new classes for those who want to join our mermaid pod,” she says.
Running mermaiding classes has been the culmination of a lifelong dream for Möttönen. “When I was a kid I wanted to have my own gills, so that I could be underwater and live there.”
“When I bought my first tail it was just a hobby, and now it’s my work, so it’s a kind of dream come true for me!”