San Marcos Like a Local

The Weird and Wonderful Connection Between Mermaids and San Marcos, Texas

August 23, 2018

The clear water of the San Marcos River may not be the traditional home of mermaids, but the mythical creatures have become a Central Texas tradition. @micbergsma

If folklore is to be believed, mermaids spend their days among the ocean waves, swimming in the salty water alongside dolphins and sunbathing on sandbars. The legends speak of creatures with iridescent tales and flowing hair that emerge from the sea to flirt with homesick sailors.

The ancient stories do not reference Texas.

And yet, about 160 miles inland from the coast, the town of San Marcos is practically swimming with mermaids. These aren’t the mermaids from fairy tales and folklore; these are freshwater mermaids. Even better, these are Texas mermaids.

To the casual observer, the San Marcos mermaid connection seems completely arbitrary, but this aquatic obsession is actually deeply rooted in the area’s history.

The San Marcos River

6Nk62mj27uYeu00Kus8A6Y The river has always been a major attraction in San Marcos, but the mermaids would come in the 1950s.
San Marcos Convention and Visitor Bureau

To understand the reason behind the San Marcos mermaid fascination, you have to start at the beginning—and by that we mean the beginning of the San Marcos River. The miraculously cool, pristine waters of the San Marcos River rise up from the Edwards Aquifer, which is located in the center of the city. The water stays 72 degrees year-round and is a paradise for wildlife and humans alike. The Texas Blind Salamander is only found within the caverns of the Edwards Aquifer and other rare and endangered species of flora and fauna including Texas Wild Rice and the Fountain Darter call the clear flowing water of the San Marcos River home. The San Marcos River is so clean, so clear and cool that it can seem downright magical on a hot summer day in Texas, so it’s no wonder that it inspired something even more fantastical.

The First Mermaids

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The annual Mermaid Parade has become a tradition in San Marcos. @cdw21

In 1926, A.B. Rogers purchased 125 acres of land at the headwaters of the San Marcos River with the intention of creating a haven for vacationers. He called it Aquarena Springs Theme Park. He built a charming hotel at Spring Lake and offered glass-bottom boat tours. In 1951, he introduced San Marcos to the mermaids. Rogers created a one-of-a-kind underwater theater. Fittingly known as the Submarine Theater, this venue gave enthusiastic audiences the chance to marvel at performances from mermaids—or aquamaids as he called them. These mermaids swirled and twirled underwater alongside a clown named Glurpo. Rogers also brought in a diving pig named Ralph, who delighted audiences with his signature “swine dive.”

Sadly, the heyday of the park ended in the 1990s when competition from Seaworld San Antonio and Six Flags Fiesta Texas made Aquarena Springs seem less enticing. The site fell into disrepair and was purchased by Texas State University for research purposes.

Fortunately, Aquarena had a happy ending. Texas State University built the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment and created a space for people to take to nature trails, study educational exhibits, and even set out on glass-bottom boat tours, just like in the days of Aquarena.

The Mermaid Society

The Aquarena may be gone, but the wonderful and strange lore of the place lives on—with the added focus on river stewardship—thanks to the San Marcos Mermaid Society. In 2016, July Moreno founded the San Marcos Mermaid Society to celebrate the history and culture of the city and draw attention to the importance of preserving the unique environment.

As the city continues to grow from a halfway-from-Austin-to-San-Antonio stop to a destination of its own, members of the San Marcos Mermaid Society aim to keep the focus on ensuring that the population minimizes the negative impact on the beautiful San Marcos River. Members of the San Marcos Mermaid Society put on events, volunteer to clean up the river and host an internship program that allows Texas State University students to get credit for partnering with the nonprofit organization.

The Mermaid Festival

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The 15-day Mermaid Festival, which includes a parade, music, art, and other entertainment, raises money for the preservation of the San Marcos River. San Marcos Convention and Visitor Bureau

One of the San Marcos Mermaid Society’s most popular contributions to the community is the annual Mermaid SPLASH (Stewardship, Preservation, Local, Arts, Sustainability, Heritage) Festival, which takes place every September. This 15-day long event features music, art, entertainment, river stewardship—and lots and lots of mermaids.

Festival-goers can pitch in along the banks of the mighty San Marcos River itself for a cleanup event and then head to the Mer-Tini Shakedown competition, which challenges local bartenders to create mermaid-inspired cocktails with Texas-made Dripping Springs Vodka. There’s also a Mermaid Society Art Ball at the Meadows Center, which brings more than 500 guests together for a night of mermaid evening wear, cocktails, and views of Spring Lake. Other events include a downtown parade filled with mermaids, art and music and the Mermaid Aqua Faire. Set on the edge of the San Marcos River, this portion of the festival features live music, dancing, food trucks, and the opportunity to browse goods from local vendors.

Mermaid Art

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A downtown mural celebrates San Marcos connection to mermaids. San Marcos Convention and Visitor Bureau

For those who are in the mood to see mermaids in San Marcos year-round, several recent public artworks have become a welcome addition to the city. On June 9, 2016, the City of San Marcos unveiled a mermaid mural on the side of Root Cellar Cafe and Bakery entitled Dive into the Divine. The massive mural depicts a single mermaid in a world of turquoise and cerulean along with the words “Keep San Marcos Beautiful.”

Future plans are in place for a fleet of colorful, seven-foot-tall fiberglass mermaids to be placed throughout town where they will be on display for at least two years.

The next time you see the image of a mermaid swimming along beneath the water, you might not picture her as a sea nymph somewhere out on the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, you’ll picture her swimming with clowns and pigs and riding on a parade float in downtown San Marcos while the mighty Texas river flows by.

Written by Krista Diamond for RootsRated Media in partnership with San Marcos CVB.