A week or so after they got back from vacation, Daphne answered a phone call in the rec room. Everyone heard her squeal.
“We’ve got dolphins at the arena entrance!”
She dove into the water and swam to the arena, with the rest of the mermaids following behind. When they got to the arena, Daphne hoisted herself onto the central platform and opened a refrigerated case. She started pulling out fish and handed two to each mermaid.
“Swim down the entrance channel and space yourselves out!” She commanded. “We need to teach the dolphins where to come for food.”
They did as she told them and swam down the entrance channel, taking up stations along the way. Allen and Daphne led the procession all the way to the end, where Daphne motioned for Allen to take up his station. Daphne swam on, out into the bay. She came back a few minutes later, followed by three dolphins. They seemed very curious about her tail, swimming up close and examining it carefully before circling back. As they approached the entrance to the channel, they hesitated, concerned about this unnatural structure. Allen swam out a little and waved his fish at them, trying to get their attention. They seemed only slightly interested in the fish, instead concentrating on Allen’s tail. As they pointed their noses at him, he felt a vibration in his legs. Were they using their echolocation on him? Not sure what to do, Allen dropped on of the fish and swam into the channel a short distance. One of the dolphins snapped up the fish, and another one followed him into the channel. Encouraged, Daphne swam into the channel as well, and after a short hesitation, the other two dolphins followed. They both swam up the channel with the dolphins following. When they got to Katherine, the dolphins investigated her tail as well. She held out her two fish and two dolphins pulled them out of her hands. They continued up the channel, gathering up Renna, Audra, Lacy, and Maria along the way. They all swam out into the arena, and the dolphins followed.
“Now what do we do?” Asked Maria.
“We just want them to understand that this is a safe place, and that there is food and affection here. So just be friendly. I’ll try to pass out some more fish.”
So they all swam around the pool, watching the dolphins to see what they would do. The dolphins explored for a minute, swimming around the perimeter of the pool to see how big it was. As the mermaids swam around, the dolphins investigated them, following along and passing them up. They continued to show curiosity about the mermaid tails, repeatedly scanning them with their echolocation. One dolphin approached Lacy very closely, and she reached out to stroke its side. The dolphin nudged her with its beak and then swam quickly away. Daphne retrieved several more fish from the case on the platform and passed them out to the dolphins, but the dolphins seemed to be more interested in the mermaids than in the food. They gulped down the fish when they encountered them, but immediately returned to investigating the mermaids. After a few minutes, the dolphins seemed to get more comfortable and began approaching the mermaids more closely, allowing them to touch their sides and feel the smooth leathery skin beneath their fingers. They continued this interaction for perhaps fifteen minutes and then they seemed to decide they had seen enough. With one more lap around the pool, the three dolphins headed out through the channel and back into the bay.
Daphne followed the dolphins out, but the rest of the mermaids stayed behind. They had left in a hurry, without putting on wetsuit tops, and once the excitement of interacting with the dolphins wore off they started noticing how cool the air and water in the arena pool was. Audra noticed that Allen’s lips were turning blue from the 60° water in the pool.
“We need to be more careful about preparing for cold water.” She told him. “Get the rest of the mermaids back inside. I’ll go catch Daphne before she gets hypothermia.”
They quickly swam back through the mermaid swim pool and into the lock. Once they were all inside and Allen pushed the button, the warm water from the greenhouse pool rushed in to fill the lock and they all luxuriated in the feeling of being warm again. They went through into the greenhouse pool and huddled together for a few minutes as they let the warmth sink into their bodies. It wasn’t long before Audra and Daphne joined them.
“Luckily, the dolphins were too fast and Daphne gave up on following them.” Said Audra. “Otherwise it might have been too late before she noticed how cold she was getting.”
Daphne looked a little sheepish. “I would have noticed before long. In the future I’m going to wear my wetsuit top so I’ll be ready.”
The dolphins came back the next day, and the day after. Soon they had a regular group of visitors to the arena pool. Daphne spent most of her time there, though she limited the feedings to 11:00 and 3:00. She wanted to accustom the dolphins to the times when they planned to have shows. Daphne got to know each individual dolphin, giving them names and starting to understand their personalities. She asked Audra for an assistant, as she would need a backup once they started doing regular shows. Soon after, Carla Hernandez came on board, bringing the total number of mermaids up to eight. (Or seven mermaids and one merman) Daphne and Carla did not help with the feedings in the aquarium, but rather spent their time in the arena pool with the dolphins. After getting the dolphins used to visiting the pool at specific times each day, they started training them to do tricks and perform. A few of the dolphins seemed to enjoy the process, while others would visit from time to time for the free fish and to satisfy their curiosity, but refused to perform for their supper. Daphne hoped they would have a regular group who would show up regularly and be willing to perform by the time the weather got warmer.
After a minor but frustrating delay, the water breathing prototypes arrived on Groundhog Day. Elaine, one of the cafeteria workers, passed the package through the sliding window with the rest of the day’s mail. Allen quickly took the package over to one of the tables and opened it up. Inside he found the three prototypes looking just like the model in his computer. They even had the scales on the outside, though they were a uniform gray color and would need to be painted to match the mermaids that would use them. There was a second box inside the main one that contained the 30 discs of each kind of absorbing material. There were also three standard chargers in separate small boxes. Allen slipped a black disc into the left slot on one of the prototypes and a red one in the other slot. Then he took the whole thing over to the kitchen area and plugged it into one of the sockets there. He prepared the other two collars as well, then headed off to the computer to work for a couple of hours while it charged.
Once the new breathing devices were charged, Allen went back to try one out. The news had traveled through the mermaid quarters and he had an audience. He picked up one of the devices and wrapped it around his neck. The scales in the back had been designed to overlap so that the seam was not visible, and a series of hooks held it in place. The device fit snugly around his neck, and the two tubes snaked up around his chin to the mouthpiece, which he put into his mouth. He pressed down on the center scale right in front of his Adam’s apple, and he could feel the gentle brush of the air passing through the mouthpiece. He slipped off of the bench and let himself sink to the bottom of the pool, where he sat, breathing through the mouthpiece as needed. Audra swam down next to him and held her thumb up with a questioning look on her face. Allen held both of his thumbs up to indicate everything was working properly. Then Audra swam up next to him and examined the apparatus closely, looking at how the air tubes appeared under water. Soon Katherine and Renna joined Allen, wearing the other two collars. The three of them swam over to the greenhouse pool and spent a long time swimming there, never once coming up for air.
Finally, it was time for Renna to feed the fish in the aquarium, so she left to take the collar off in the cafeteria again. Once she was gone, Allen took advantage of the time alone with Katherine to do a little underwater cuddling. Unfortunately, the mouthpieces got in the way when he tried to kiss her. By the time they tired of their game and went to the rec pool, they had been underwater for over an hour and a half. They sat on the couch and pulled their mouthpieces out so they could talk.
“Do they work as well as you hoped?” Asked Katherine?
“Yes! Wasn’t it great to not have to worry about coming up for air every three minutes?”
“It was. And now that we don’t have the mouthpieces in the way, I think we have some unfinished business.”
Allen needed no further encouragement to lean in and give his wife a long, lingering kiss. They were interrupted by Audra clearing her throat.
“It seems like the breathing devices worked as planned.”
“They sure do. Would you like to try one out?”
“I have one of my own getting ready. But for now I need to be out of the water for a few days. I can take the collars with me and get Cammy to paint them. I assume the plan is still to match your tail, as well as Renna’s and Lacy’s?”
“Yes, that was what we all agreed on. The manufacturer said he could have four more collars made up in a few days now that he is all set up. Do you want me to order them?”
“Not just yet. Let’s wait until I get back and test my collar. There might be a few changes to make before we order any more.”
Allen and Katherine helped each other take their collars off, and they handed them to Audra, who took them with her out of the mermaid pools. The next day, Fernando brought back the three breathing collars, and the mermaids started using them immediately. Allen’s collar was a little larger because of his larger male neck, so he used his exclusively. Renna and Lacy shared theirs with Maria and Katherine. The collars made it much easier to do the fish feeding, since they didn’t have to surface for a breath. The clear air tubes were nearly invisible to those looking into the aquarium from the galleries, and the customers were amazed when they noticed that the mermaids didn’t need to surface to breathe. There were extra handprints on the acrylic walls from people cupping their hands around their eyes to get a better look at the mermaids and try to figure out how they were breathing.
A few days after they started using the collars, Lacy got a call from Channel 26 news. Kari Davis wanted to do a story on the mermaids and how they could stay under the water for so long. Lacy told her she would have to get Audra’s permission, but she thought it would be OK. Then she tried to call Audra, but she just got an out of office message from her voicemail. Lacy knew that Audra often turned her phone off when traveling, so she left a message, then sent an e-mail as a backup. An hour or so later, she got an e-mail reply.
Of course it is fine for you or one of the other mermaids to give an interview. We have applied for patents on the materials and construction of the collars, so don’t go into a lot of detail. Whoever does the interview can just say that we have some proprietary materials that absorb and release oxygen and carbon dioxide. You can show the collars and of course, make sure to put in as many plugs for the aquarium as they will let you.
I’ll be out for another week or so. I hope the interview goes well.
After getting Audra’s e-mail, Lacy called the reporter back.
“We would be happy to arrange for an interview.” She said. “When would you like to do it?”
“This afternoon would be great. We’re looking for a human interest story for this evening’s news.”
Lacy checked the time on her computer screen. “How about 2:30? I’ll meet you at the aquarium entrance.”
“That will work out just fine. I’ll see you then.”
Lacy checked the schedule. It looked like Katherine would be available until her turn to feed the fish at 4:00. She didn’t see her sitting at the bank of computers, so Lacy had to hunt her down. She activated her collar and swam through the complex, starting at the cafeteria. Katherine wasn’t there, nor in the greenhouse. Maybe she was out in the dolphin arena? Lacy knew that Katherine liked to help out if there were any dolphins present. So Lacy went back to her sleeping pool and pulled on a wetsuit top, then swam out to the arena to find Katherine. She was indeed there, helping Daphne and Carla. She was sitting on the center platform, operating the controls for the pole and swing, while Daphne sat in the swing and gave the signal to jump out of the water. Two dolphins were in the pool, and Freddy, one of the dolphins most willing to perform, was one of them. He jumped out of the pool at Daphne’s signal, making a big splash with his tail as he came down. Daphne rewarded him with a fish, and Katherine lowered the swing to the water’s surface so that Daphne could reinforce the reward with a hug and a rub.
Lacy waved at Katherine, who slipped into the water and swam over to her.
“What’s up Lacy?”
“We have a reporter coming at 2:30 for an interview. Would you be willing to help me talk to her?”
“Sure, I can do that. Daphne and Carla can manage without me.”
They swam back to the mermaid living quarters together, though Lacy had to hold back a little. Katherine didn’t have one of the collars on at the moment, so she had to surface for a breath every few minutes. An outside observer would hardly have noticed the difference though. After spending so much time in the water, both women moved through it almost as naturally as the dolphins they were leaving behind.
Once they were back at their respective sleeping pools, they prepared for the interview, taking off their wetsuit tops and replacing them with red halter-style swimsuit tops with the aquarium logo on them. Katherine found Renna’s breathing collar and put it on, then combed her hair out. Since they were going to be on TV, she also put on some waterproof makeup. When they were ready, she and Lacy swam out to the practice pool and Fernando lifted them out of the water. They rode their wheelchairs into the locker room, where there were some hair dryers that they could use to dry their hair. Laci took off her collar and put it in her lap, but she asked Katherine to keep hers on. By the time they were done, it was almost 2:30, so they went down to the entrance to greet Kari Davis. She arrived right on time, followed by a cameraman and an assistant.
“Welcome to the Gulf Aquarium.” Said Lacy, holding out her hand. The reporter shook it and then thanked her for arranging the interview.
“Where would you like to set up?”
“Could we do it right in front of the two-story aquarium wall, where we can see the fish in the background?”
“Of course. Come right this way.” Lacy and Katherine wheeled over to the special wheelchair gate next to the turnstiles, and an aquarium employee let them all in. They went directly to the tall wall of acrylic and turned around. The cameraman took a few minutes to set up his tripod and test his sound equipment, and then Kari turned around and put on her reporter face.
“Kari Davis, Fox 26 news here at the Gulf Aquarium on Pelican Island. I’m with Lacy Zelinski, Marketing Director for the Aquarium, who also happens to be one of their mermaid stars. Also with us is Katherine Landry, Biomedical Engineer and also a mermaid. Lacy, I’ve been hearing stories about mermaids staying underwater for as much as an hour without having to surface. Is that true?”
“Yes it is. We can actually stay underwater for much longer than an hour.”
“How can that be?”
“That’s why I asked Katherine to be here. You have probably noticed the scales around her neck.”
“Yes. And I can see some tubes coming out the sides.”
Katherine put her mouthpiece in, and Lacy continued her explanation.
“The tubes carry oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. The scales on Katherine’s neck are actually part of a special collar that lets us breathe underwater. Since the tubes are clear, you don’t notice them when we are in the water.”
“Wow! How does it work? Scuba divers need great big tanks of air on their back!”
“I’m not an expert on that. Katherine here is the engineer.” Said Lacy.
Katherine pulled the mouthpiece back out of her mouth. “Think of your morning coffee.” She said. “You can mix in several spoons full of sugar, and yet it doesn’t take up any more room in your cup. That is because the sugar molecules fit in between the water molecules and share the same space. We have some special materials in our collars that work that same way with oxygen. They absorb the oxygen molecules out of the air and store them in a very compact space by putting them in between the molecules of the material. Then by applying a bit of heat, we can release that oxygen so we can breathe.”
“That actually makes sense! Thank you. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that.”
“Well, there are some other things as well. We have to absorb the carbon dioxide from our breath so it doesn’t poison us. Another specialized material does that. And we also have some electronics and some valves that control the pressure of the gases as we go up and down in the water.”
“That’s very impressive. Now, can you tell me what it is like being a mermaid?”
“I have always loved to swim and to be in the water. Now I get to do that every day as part of my job. I really enjoy it.”
“Our viewers may remember that you were one of a group of people kidnapped and shipped south in a train a few months ago. Do you still have nightmares about that time?”
“I think we all do. But it’s over with now and we are moving ahead with life.”
“May I see one of the collars in action?”
“Actually, if you look in the aquarium behind me, you may see one right now. Allen should be feeding the fish for a few more minutes.”
After hearing about Allen, the reporter and her cameraman quickly moved to the aquarium wall and looked in. Allen was on the other side at the moment, feeding the moray eels. Kari Davis started to ask her cameraman to move farther along in the gallery, but Lacy stopped them.
“Just wait here a moment. He’ll be swimming closer.”
So they set up the camera looking straight into the aquarium. After he finished with the morays, Allen swam slowly around the aquarium, waving at the customers through the walls. It took him about five minutes to get to the front wall of the aquarium, and he didn’t surface for a breath during that time. When he saw the group gathered near the front wall, he approached and waved at them as well. He was done with the groups of fish scheduled for a feeding, but one of the hammerhead sharks swam up and looked at him anyway, just in case he had a treat. He patted it on the head and swam slowly away, waving at the customers on the other side of the aquarium. Never once taking a breath. Through the layers of acrylic and water, the clear tubes on his breathing collar were not really visible, so he appeared to be surviving completely without breathing assistance. Once he had swum to the back of the aquarium and slipped over the side into the exit tube, the cameraman swung his camera back to Kari Davis.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been looking at my watch while the merman behind us swam around. I haven’t seen him take a breath for over 21 minutes. Lacy, I wasn’t aware that the aquarium had mermen as well as mermaids. Are there other mermen other than the one we just watched?”
“Not at the current time. But who knows what may happen in the future? We’ve been hiring some new mermaids lately to help in our Dolphin arena that will have its grand opening on April 1.”
“A dolphin arena? I didn’t know you had any captive dolphins here at the Gulf Aquarium.”
“These aren’t captive dolphins. We are starting a whole new, more humane way of working with cetaceans here at the Gulf aquarium. These are wild dolphins who come to us by choice. They live in the bay, not in a pool or a tank.”
“Wow! How do they get to your dolphin arena then?”
“There is an open channel from the arena to the bay. They can swim in and out whenever they want.”
“So do you lure them in with food?”
“We do give them food, but based on the interactions I’ve had with them so far, they come as much out of a love for the trainers as they do for the food. They are developing a very close relationship with Daphne and Carla, our dolphin trainers.”
“Now you’ve got me wanting to see this. I’m definitely coming back in April.”
“We look forward to seeing you again.”
The reporter and her entourage packed up their equipment and left, and Lacy and Katherine went back to their work. That night, they watched the interview on the news. Much of it had been cut, and the scene with Allen swimming was trimmed to only about 30 seconds, but Lacy expected an increase in aquarium attendance for a while due to the free advertising.