Marina Anderson is all sparkle as she sits at an old, wooden bar — initials scratched in across the front. With silver glitter eye shadow, a copper sequin dress and a large flower in wavy hair with a platinum streak, subtlety isn’t really her style.
It’s 9 p.m. and in about half an hour, she’ll swap the bar for the pool and her dress for a set of bedazzled pasties and a tail — but don’t you dare call her a mermaid.
Twice a night on Fridays and Saturdays, a team of about four performers including Anderson floats past porthole windows at Fort Lauderdale’s Wreck Bar, covered in sequins, some donning tails and gliding gracefully through the water.
“I want it to be more of a spectacle showgirl thing, so to call them mermaids almost places them in a regular category — like canned beans,” says Anderson, who founded the underwater shows.
Wreck Bar is located inside the B Ocean Fort Lauderdale resort. It’s dark and covered in shiplap — a stark contrast from the rest of the hotel’s bright, white, sleek and midcentury-modern look.
The newly renovated B Ocean was built in 1956 and originally known as the Yankee Clipper. Under new ownership, it has some new additions, like the Naked Crab restaurant on one end of the lobby. But across from the restaurant, the Wreck Bar remains pretty much unchanged.
With its nautical flair, stained glass and rope elements, it’s fashioned to look like a Spanish Galleon ship that didn’t make it quite to shore — hence the name. Above the bar, six large portholes offer views into one of the retro hotel’s swimming pools.
From 1956 until 1965, the Yankee Clipper hosted swim shows, incorporating the portholes. Anderson started MeduSirena — an underwater spectacle featuring a team of figure swimmers, the Aquaticats — at Wreck Bar in 2006 as an homage to that past.
“I started the shows here in an effort to preserve the bar and the art of figure swimming, which has almost gone extinct,” says Anderson, who has been swimming for 30 years.
“I think it’s generally something that taps into the golden age of tourism and what people come to experience on vacation, escapism. You want to go someplace for a moment; you feel like you’re in at the bottom of a ship. You’re sitting watching girls float in liquid space.”
Bartender Mark Gibson’s been at Wreck Bar for two years now.
“Seeing it is everything,” he says of the show. “It has the history, the fun, it adds another specialty to the Wreck.”
Gibson hands a vodka cranberry to Dan Cannon, who’s visiting from Tampa with his wife. “We would come back just for this bar,” Cannon says. “It’s that cool.”
But you didn’t used to have to travel across the state to witness an underwater show.
“A lot of hotels within the whole east and west coast particularly were well known for having these swim shows as a feature of the hotel,” Anderson says. “So you could sit back at the Fontainebleau, you see that in James Bond. In the opening to Goldfinger, you see this beautiful high dive and a porthole pool across the way that even had a skating rink. These hotels were known for that and unfortunately, it started dying out.”
That’s why Anderson does what she does. “You don’t see hotels that have attractions within them anymore and as far as porthole pools, they’re almost extinct completely,” she says.
There’s a small handful of hotels left in Florida that have the signature pools with massive viewing windows, but Anderson says B Ocean’s is the only remaining one with a swim show.
“It was always our intention to preserve the show and its popularity, as it has been a Fort Lauderdale attraction since the late 1950s,” says B Ocean director of sales and marketing Michael Dutton. “We get repeat guests who have been staying with us for decades and that’s always one of their first questions, if we still have the show.”
The early show happens at 5:30 p.m. to coincide with happy hour. Anderson refers to it as the “fishtail glamor girls” show. It lets attendees enjoy their drinks while watching Anderson’s team of swimmers, the Aquaticats, frolic around in their tails.
“I make the tails and I want them to look more like dresses rather than fishy,” Anderson says. “I don’t want us to look like fish girls, even though there’s nothing wrong with that. I want to keep the essence of the 1950s, 1960s glam. They just happen to be functional as tails.”
The Aquaticats’ second performance of the night is a 21-and-over burlesque show featuring old-school music and some seduction — amongst other things.
“It has a lot of schtick, a lot of humor, a lot of sequins, a lot of crystals and a lot of rhinestones,” Anderson says. “It’s very Vegas. I want to keep it retro; it’s not bump-and-grind.”
The burlesque show joined the Wreck Bar’s regular schedule in February, but Anderson’s been pushing for it for years.
“I knew it’d be a hard sell,” she says. “People don’t understand the idea of swim shows, period. They don’t understand what it takes or what they’ll see. Usually after they see it, they’ll be like, ‘Oh! So these girls are dancing underwater and look like they’re flying in space and wow, they’re really comfortable. But they don’t have air hoses. This is different.’”
Different? Yes. Difficult? Very.
To be an Aquaticat, you have to be able to act. And you have to act like you’re comfortable even in the most unusual of circumstances. “Tonight, the water’s cold. We have to show the audience that it’s not,” Anderson says. “We have to show the audience that we’re not holding our breath. We have to show that we’re comfortable even though our eyes are exposed to chemicals. There are a lot of things that we have to play upon to kind of put aside and let the audience experience it and not know the complications.”
The swimmers range in day jobs from lifeguards to firefighters, as well as some professional dancers. Anderson will train them in aspects like “underwater buoyancy.” By day, she also teaches recreational swimming lessons.
“I train people going on cruise ships who want to learn how to get in and out of the pool gracefully,” she says. “Old Hollywood things like that.”
When the burlesque show begins, the bar is packed. Front row seats are those around the wooden bar. But since the windows are elevated, attendees can see the Aquaticats from any table in the bar. Anderson swims past the portholes in glittery pasties, her flower still sitting in her wavy long hair. She wears one of her handcrafted tails, but later sheds it to reveal sparkly bottoms and tights.
“We have one or two in the fishtails and eventually one will shed that tail, which is part of the kitsch,” she says. “You’ll never know what I have underneath; it’s kind of a potluck surprise.”
Another Aquaticat, clad in a gold, barely there two-piece, gives a seductive smile and shakes her behind at the window for a phone to record. Another set of swimmers get in a fake catfight, vying for the audience’s attention.
“We’re not Disney,” Anderson says. “We’re not supposed to be saccharin. We’re not horrible, but it’s visually fun.”
Anderson flirts with the audience and goes for the money shot — a single blow of a kiss, revealing tons of tiny air bubbles that make the crowd go crazy.
She ultimately hopes her figure swimming inspires others.
“People will mention movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, but if you look at those scenes, that’s all CGI,” she says. “You really don’t get to see people practicing figure swimming anymore and that’s something I wish would change. I’d love to see more people underwater and doing stuff. But you gotta start somewhere. And if it’s just me in the pool getting people interested, so be it. Let me help.”