Whenever Anna Haskell is asked what she does for a living, she always makes sure she has her mobile phone handy.
"When I say I’m a mermaid swimming instructor I’m usually met with a lot of blank stares, so I have to reach for my phone and show pictures of what I do," says Anna, 36, founder of southcoastmermaids.com.
"I have tons of photographs of student ‘mermaids’, with their colourful tails flicking up in the air out of the water or doing headstands or somersaults - and although most people are surprised that such a thing exists, they say it looks fun – and it really is!"
Anna, who lives in Chichester with husband Isaac, 37, an assistant headteacher and son Cody, 7, set up the rather unusual company in 2018. She had noticed in her day job as a primary school teacher that many young girls in her PE lessons were dropping out as soon as they could after learning to swim.
"I was disappointed to see so many girls backing out of swimming but I could understand why," she says.
"I also find lane swimming boring and anything else like diving, synchronised swimming or water polo is great but it’s competitive. There didn’t seem to be anything they could do in the water that was purely for fun.
"I spotted a course on the South West coast that was teaching people how to swim while wearing a neoprene fin and colourful mermaid tail and thought it looked like the most amazing thing ever.
"I tried it out and absolutely loved it. There’s a real sense of magic to it when you’re zooming through the water with your tail behind you. I realised that it might prove to be a great incentive for the girls."
But when Anna started searching for pools to teach the lessons, she was met with some resistance.
"There was quite a lot of negativity at first because understandably, no one liked the idea of strapping children’s feet together and letting them into the pool," she says.
"But the course I’d done was affiliated to Swim England and the Royal Life Saving Society and so I knew it was completely safe. The kinds of tails we use are ‘quick release’ meaning that if you don’t like the feel of them, you can simply kick free of them in seconds.
"That was really an important element to me. I’m now a Water Safety Partner of the RLSS and a local ambassador for the Royal National Lifeboat Institute and deliver talks about water safety advice – something I’m passionate about, living so close to the coast."
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Eventually, the Arundel Lido charity allowed Anna to start classes and mermaids started flocking to the water, which is overlooked by Arundel Castle.
"I was running two children’s classes a week and sometimes birthday parties, and the reactions from children and parents were wonderful," she says. "But since Covid, I’ve noticed that more adults want to get involved. There’s a real sense of fun to mermaid swimming and you can swim much faster through the water when wearing a tail.
"I now have hundreds of different tails from age 6 up to adult extra large and they’re in all colours of the rainbow. We do all kinds of activities from swimming through hoops, to tail flicks, diving for treasure on the floor of the pool and swimming through seaweed (yellow streamers) and everyone has a great time.
"It’s fun, creative but also safe."
Anna loves mermaid swimming herself, and is in the pool as often as possible, even doing a 12-hour sponsored mermaid swim to help raise money for the Lido. The lessons have gone from strength to strength and recently comedian Nish Kumar was given a lesson while being filmed for a new TV programme.
Anna is currently pregnant with her second child and so will be taking some time off from early September. But the mermaid lessons will be left in capable hands.
"I have one young former student who is absolutely brilliant at lessons but also a lady called Helen Bull, who is amazing and actually the only lifeguard and mermaid instructor in the UK who is in a wheelchair," says Anna.
"She’s known on Instagram as ‘The Swimming Unicorn’ so it seemed natural that one day she and I would work together.
"But once I’ve had my baby, I know I’ll want to make a splash as soon as possible."
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