KURE BEACH— Twenty feet below the surface of a natural spring, Lydia Byrd finds herself eyes wide open, blowing heart-shaped kisses, fulfilling her dreams. Byrd is a mountain girl living in a mermaid’s world, and loving it.
Her underwater odyssey began in the shadow of North Carolina’s highest peak; and will soon land her, shimmering tail and all, in a magical adventure at the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher in early March.
Byrd, 23, grew up in Burnsville, far from the typical mermaid hot spots. She was surrounded by the security of supportive family and a close-knit, farming community. She found comfort in wooded hikes, snow and knowing everyone in town.
Now the young woman creates magical memories and mesmerizes strangers, young and old, carrying on a Florida tradition dating back to 1947. Byrd and her enchanting siren sisters perform live, underwater shows as the famous Weeki Wachee mermaids.
However, as with any tale worthy of retelling, Bryd’s peak to lagoon journey isn’t without its rocky shoals and soul-searching.
As an infant, Byrd was diagnosed with a form of liver cancer. She endured invasive surgery and chemotherapy. She triumphed over the disease and has little memory of the battle. Yet, it shaped her in many ways.
The treatments left her with physical reminders including slight hearing loss and a visible scar on her torso. Hearing aids she wore in elementary and middle school made her a target for bullying. She learned not to let it bother her or to take things for granted. Even so, she may have chosen to play life a little safe, at least for a while.
“I was terrified to leave home and really wanted to be around the familiar,” said Byrd.
While in college in eastern Tennessee, a one-hour drive from her hometown, Byrd began to ponder life outside her comfort zone. She took a scuba course and loved the underwater experience. As she neared graduation, she considered her options and traditional expectations. She dreamed of doing more and no longer wanted to just float along.
“There was this pressure to start my life and settle down in a real job,” said Byrd. “If I wanted to do something different, this was the time to do it. So I took the chance.”
A tip from a family member and a Facebook post for an open casting call, led Byrd to Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida in early 2018. She auditioned in a three-part process testing her strength, abilities and personality. Sixty women competed. Byrd received one of seven spots.
A big, hurried move south and several months of training followed. She was a quick study, learning underwater choreography, techniques and to be comfortable taking occasional breaths from a snaking, air hose. Byrd received her tail and performed her first show in May 2018.
She now performs regularly at the springs, delights in meeting guests and enjoys opportunities to travel to aquariums across the country to share her love of mermaids.
“When I think about it all, it’s emotional for me,” she said. “Not just to be a mermaid, but how much I’ve grown and how far I’ve come.”
In early March, Byrd will return to her home state for a special engagement entertaining thousands of visitors at the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher. The aquarium has hosted the Weeki Wachee Mermaids annually since 2017. This will be Byrd’s first visit to the aquarium where she will swim with sharks, rays and a sea turtle named Shelldon in the aquarium’s largest habitat, March 1-3. While the experience will be different than a typical day in Florida, there is little doubt there will be plenty of mermaid magic.