It’s my first day at a new school and I’m like a fish out of water.
That’s because today I’m learning how to be a mermaid - yes, that mythical sea creature - complete with a bright pink tail.
I’ve enrolled in the UK’s first Mermaid Course, run by Newquay-based diving specialists Freedive UK.
It’s designed to teach you how to glide gracefully underwater and, according to the website, to “remain looking good despite everything else”.
But, as I quickly discover, no amount of watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid on loop can prepare you to morph into Ariel.
A growing trend in mermaids
Mermaids have grown in popularity ever since Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid in 1836.
The 1960s saw the heyday of Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs Mermaids, who still perform shows in glass tanks for tourists.
Now, social media is flooded with so-called ‘real-life mermaids’, like Mermaid Melissa, the world’s only legally-named mermaid, who has amassed 123K Instagram followers and 540K Facebook likes.
Professional mermaids can earn up to £800 to perform everywhere from at children’s pool parties to aquariums filled with fish and sharks.
The English Mermaids founder Lily-Rose Shepherd, 21, has worked as mermaid since 2012 and wears a 15kg tail worth £3,000 for up to seven hours per gig.
[Image: Andrew Childs]
She says: “When I started out there weren’t that many Mers in the UK, now there are quite a lot of us and that number is growing.
“There’s a lot more involved than simply putting on a tail, sitting on a rock and smiling. It’s hard work, but incredibly rewarding.”
The man responsible for my transformation into aquatic goddess is Ian Donald, a master freediving instructor who can hold his breath underwater for a staggering 7 minutes 20 seconds.
“There are obvious similarities between freediving and being a mermaid,” he says as I arrive at the swimming pool of the Glendorgal Hotel for our half-day session. “Both require you to swim underwater while holding your breath.
“But being a mermaid has more of a performance element - you are looking good for other people, whether that’s a photographer or someone watching your show.”
But before I can graduate to wearing a tail, I need to learn how to hold my breath beneath the surface.
Ian shows me how to inhale the maximum amount of air - starting by filling my diaphragm, then intercostal muscles, before a final swallow that fills the throat.
Once underwater, the key is to relax - cue happy holiday memories - and not to exhale.
Floating face-down in the pool, goggles suctioned to my face, claustrophobia creeps in.
But the feeling that I’m going to die is greatly reduced by the presence of Ian, who taps me on the shoulder and waits for my thumbs-up signal that I’m OK.
With each attempt, I push it a bit further until on my third go, I last 2 minutes 39 seconds underwater.
It’s got nothing on Ariel, but Ian still deems me ready for step two: swimming.
This is where things get fun.
Ian hands me a pink tail, fitted with a monofin. Wearing it feels like I’ve squeezed both legs into a tight, Spandex sleeve, with a heavy weight tied to my feet.
“To swim, you need to engage your core, keep strong legs and don’t over-bend your knees,” Ian instructs as I hop back into the pool.
“Think about how a dolphin swims, with fluid movements, and try to copy that.”
I take a deep breath and dive in. It’s a struggle at first - I keep over-kicking my legs instead of thrusting my hips and have an irritating habit of nose-diving towards the floor.
But after a few laps I begin to pick up the undulating technique, feeling waves of serenity wash over me with each flip of the fin.
This is it - I’m embracing my inner mermaid.
Posing for the camera
It’s just as well that this moment can be captured on camera.
While I’ve been busy channelling all things Ariel, AquaStudios photographer Alastair Scarlett has set up a studio at one end of the pool, complete with lights and a blue backdrop.
I will only be a true mermaid if I can master what so many of them do as a day job - underwater modelling.
This is a lot harder than it seems.
First, lose the goggles. Then you need to exhale deeply to make your body heavy enough to sit comfortably on the pool floor.
That’s where the work really begins.
Have you ever tried opening your eyes underwater, holding your breath, making sure your hair isn’t billowing all over your face AND looked totally natural while doing it?
Chlorine stings my eyes as I squint and make out the blurry black outlines of Ian and Alastair, then the flash of the camera.
I manage only a couple of poses before I have to resurface, gasping for air and rubbing my eyes.
Alastair gives me tips - open my mouth slightly, widen my eyes, the cheesier pose the better - and after almost an hour of me posing and preening, he gets the shot.
Peeling off my tail to become human again, I stumble, my legs suddenly wobbly now I’m back on dry land.
Maybe I’m more of a mermaid than I realised.