by Joey Phoenix
Since the beginning of sea exploration, sailors have dreamed of mermaids swimming around their ships as they cruised through the deep. The stories they imagined and fantastical tales they told were just true enough to be believable, and they were subsequently passed down through generations, creating a world where people young and old could envision an ocean full of magical beings with beautiful faces and sparkling tails.
In Salem in 2019, ships in the harbor might also see Merfolk swimming about, specifically, they might see Joshua – The Little Merman of Salem.
This is also where I met up with him, and he and I sat on a rock overlooking the harbor in the bright Salem sunshine, his tail flicking back and forth in the light.
A North Shore native – born on the harbor beach as legend would have it – Joshua knew from a very early age that he wasn’t like most humans. He recalled being inexplicably called to the ocean, desiring to know everything there was to know about it.
“I’m a Cancer,” he explains. “And my heart has always belonged to the sea.”
He spent his early years swimming about in every body of water he was allowed to – from the Atlantic Ocean, to the Salem Harbor, to the local Salem YMCA.
“As a kid, [my friends and I] always crossed our legs and swam about, but I always knew that I needed a tail of my own. I bought my first tail – a Mertailor Neoprene tail – when I was 19.
“Tails are like pairs of shoes, and I choose different tails due to different factors of my life. Each of my tails means something.”
He currently has three tails: a green silicone Mertailor tail inspired by The Little Mermaid, a Mertailor whimsy tail – his “witchy tail”, and a Finfolk Productions fabric tail. The next tail he plans to get is one inspired by the Blue-Ringed Octopus, a highly venomous species.
“I want to have the look of a Merman but also have the deadliest touch.” He says with a spark in his eye.
Performing Professionally as the Little Merman of Salem
Joshua started his professional merman career when Boston Harbor Cruises asked him to model for some of their promotional materials a few years ago. Prior to this, he had been tempted to move somewhere south like North Carolina or Florida that already had a flourishing mer-community, but he just loved Salem far too much. Staying also meant that he would become the first professional (non-hobbyist) Merman in Massachusetts.
“Salem is always talking about their witches and it’s wonderful, it’s a magical town and a great time to have magic, however when you think about the ocean and how much history we have here…” he trails off, waiting for me to get the point he’s trying to make.
“Why wouldn’t there be merfolk?” I supplied, which causes him to nod enthusiastically.
“You know that New England has its own Mermaid legends, right? The Newburyport and Deer Island Mermaids are both about our coasts.” He tells me, but upon further research, it seems most of the details of these stories are lost to history.
After he got his first gig with Boston Harbor Cruises, more doors started opening up for him and he joined the New England Pod – a group of merfolx who promote themselves as performers and educators in the seven New England states.
“I’ve worked with the New England Aquarium, gone to baby showers, worked weddings and birthday parties, and marched in parades. I’ll do anything as long as they want a Little Merman to show up. Recently I was asked to represent Massachusetts in the world’s largest mermaid gathering: Mermania in Greensboro, North Carolina.”
When asked about what it was like to live in both the human and merperson worlds, he paused a moment before responding artfully,
“Humans can be the most beautiful people or they can be blowfishes.”
He also says that sometimes he wishes he could leave the human world for good and live under the ocean. “When I’m in my tail I’m more me, I’m more confident.
“There are some days where I want to make a splash and go into the ocean and not come back because I’m so sick of the human world. Then sometimes my human moments are just as good [as my ocean moments]. There’s beauty in both places.”
Before You Become a Merperson…
In 2015, a video of a woman saving her daughter from drowning in a swimming pool went viral. But the reason it went viral wasn’t for the act of heroism, it was because the child was wearing a tail. Mer-tails often bind the feet together, making it – according to a study by the Royal Life Saving Society of WA (RLSSWA) – 70% more difficult for a child to swim under normal conditions.
In the aftermath of this study, public pools around the world started banning amateur merfolk from swimming in their pools, including the Salem YMCA. Joshua thinks that the reaction made sense, but it was a little too severe and should make allowances for merfolk who have sufficient swimming abilities.
“Before you do any mermaid work you need to know how to swim,” He explains. “You need to know your body conditions you need to know your breathing, you need to be responsible.”
He also urges that children under the age of 13 using a tail should always have adult supervision, especially if they’re in a tail for the first time.
“People ask me a lot on my page if the Little Merman of Salem would be able to show them how to work a tail. Absolutely!”
Since he was no longer able to swim at the Salem YMCA after the ban, Josh began doing weekly meetups at Winter Island during the summer.
“I try to go 2-3 times a week and talk to the kids about conservation and how to protect our oceans and teach them how to swim. As a pod we also meet up and do this and we try to give back to the community of New England.
“Our dream is to be able to swim at the New England Aquarium.”
Being a merman was a lifelong dream for Josh, the Little Merman of Salem, and it’s something he plans to do for the rest of his life. He also encourages anyone who feels like they may identify as a merperson to try it out, put on a tail, and see if the lifestyle fits.
“If people feel that they’re menfolk I say embrace it, embrace what you feel inside, and never be ashamed of who you are.
Just make sure you know how to swim.”
Joey Phoenix is a performance artist and the Managing Editor of Creative North Shore. Follow them on Twitter @jphoenixmedia. If you have an idea for a story, feature, or pictures of adorable llamas, feel free to send them a message at firstname.lastname@example.org