SWIMMING WITH...WELL, YOU KNOW: Fraser says that these 20-foot-long endangered whale sharks she swam with in the Philippines are harmless.
Kristian Schmidt

Gone are the days of frolicking in the ocean for mere pleasure. Instead, this mermaid is on a crusade to PROTECT THE WORLD'S OCEANS — as well as the creatures living in them.

She’s elegant, exotic and graceful under pressure — not to mention water. If you’re old enough to remember Daryl Hannah as Madison, Tom Hanks’ somewhat ­unusual love interest in the 1984 film Splash, then you know the type: a head-turner, for sure. And part-fish.

Part of Their World

Hooked on the idea of becoming
a mermaid? There are plenty of ways to dip your (ahem) fin in the water without taking the actual plunge. Former Weeki Wachee Springs merman Eric Ducharme now runs Mertailor, an online retail store where you can purchase your own custom-made fin along with everyone from Lady Gaga to contestants on the TV reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race. And Weeki Wachee Springs actually hosts a Sirens of the Deep Mermaid Camp, in which wannabe mermaids age 30 and older receive ­underwater ballet training that culminates in a private performance for family and friends. There’s also the opportunity to sport afin for dry pics. Though all of the camp’s 2013 dates are booked, don’t fret. Instead, shimmy yourself over to the second annual Mer-Palooza, an international mermaid convention that this year is scheduled to take place from Aug. 9 to Aug. 11 at the Best ­Western Bay Harbor Hotel in Tampa, Fla. Along with a mermaid pageant, the event includes a pool party and various underwater stars from throughout the mermaid community.

Human fascination with mermaids dates back centuries. From the tales of goddesses-turned-sea-­creatures in ancient Assyria to the malevolent mermaids of Peter Pan’s age-defying Neverland, these mythical champions of the ocean have endlessly infiltrated our imaginations. Wannabe mermaids are everywhere. Each June, thousands of men and women don shimmery sarongs and plastic-shell tops (or no tops at all) and swarm the streets of New York’s Coney Island for the beach town’s annual Mermaid Parade, which heralds the start of summer. And live mermaid shows lure patrons to establishments throughout the U.S., from the Wreck Bar in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the Sip ’n Dip Lounge in Great Falls, Mont. In fact, women well-practiced in underwater aquatics were staples at mid-20th-century roadside attractions, including the Aquarama in Osage Beach, Mo., and Aquarena Springs in San Marcos, Texas. One of the most beloved — the daily mermaid show at Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on the Central Florida coast — has been enthralling audiences for more than 50 years.

The mystique surrounding a creature that’s half-human, half-fish is undeniably alluring, but it’s only been a few decades since mermaids have gone from kitsch to, well, cool. In 1989, Disney released The Little ­Mermaid, an animated flick based on Danish author Hans ­Christian Andersen’s 19th-century fairy tale about a mermaid willing to give up her fin for the love of a prince. The movie has grossed more than $200 million to date worldwide and has brought new life to a fledgling sect of the film industry — not to mention a legendary sea creature that had somewhat faded from fashion.

Hannah Fraser is not your average Disney princess, but the Australian-raised model, performance artist, ocean environmentalist and certified scuba diver — she hesitates to give her age, though she readily admits her astrological sign: Aquarius — has similarly stunning good looks. She also has plenty of depth, literally and figuratively. For 10 years, Fraser, who lives in Los ­Angeles, has been working as a professional mermaid, a self-made job that requires endless creativity, a high level of athleticism and extreme comfort in the sea. Fraser crafts her own fins — she has eight in rotation — using a Finis Competitor Monofin and neoprene wet-suit material that she cuts to form, zips skintight and embellishes with sequins. And her underwater stats are just as impressive: An experienced free diver, she can hold her breath for up to two minutes and dive to 50 feet without a tank of air (an accessory that — like a nose plug and goggles — she prefers to forgo). One thing that sets Fraser apart from other aforementioned mermaids: Between donning her tail for corporate clients like Target and Lord & Taylor, doing jobs for Atlantis Resorts and Cirque du Soleil, and performing in aquariums around the world, she often works in open water. ­Fraser has been filmed swimming alongside giant manta rays, dolphins, seals, humpback whales and great white sharks in efforts to draw attention to the ocean. “Seeing these animals diminishing in numbers because of pollution and overfishing breaks my heart,” Fraser says. “I think creating images that show the connection possible between humans and sea creatures may help inspire people to start protecting them.”