Meet Mermaid Mershell – aka Michelle Forsbrey – whose passion for the ocean has taken her to new depths as she’s learned to freedive and set up her own mermaiding school in Bournemouth. Words: Anna Turns Photographs: Waveslider Photography;

Each time Michelle Forsbrey dives underwater, her troubles melt away. She holds her breath for up to three minutes and it’s peaceful beneath the waves. Gently kicking her mermaid’s tail, she feels graceful and free. ‘It’s my free spirit,’ says Michelle, who set up Mayim Mermaid Academy in Bournemouth after she was badly injured in a surfing accident. ‘Getting into the sea with the sunshine glistening on the water makes me so happy. I’m completely at peace and I don’t think about anything else.’

So far, Michelle – or Mershell in her official capacity – has trained more than 300 mermaids of all ages. Families seem to love having a professional mermaid in town. During the summer months, Michelle does a few swim-bys around the piers in Bournemouth and Boscombe and sometimes takes her mask and freedives down to the artificial reef: ‘The water’s cold so I’ve only got a 15-minute window,’ says Michelle, who gets a friend to take her out on a paddleboard where she will put her tail on then reappear as a mermaid. ‘I’ll do some tail flicks and kicks, I can do a handstand to flip my tail in the air, and then swim around the piers or go up to the shoreline.’

Mermaiding is quite a change from Michelle’s day job. Her career as an air stewardess on long-haul flights has taken her around the globe for the past 20 years. Once she’s caught up on her sleep after a trip, she heads for the beach at Boscombe pier, just a 30-second cycle ride from home. ‘When I’m up in the air, I miss the sea,’ says Michelle, 42, who has grown up here on the south coast. ‘When I swim, any worries just disappear.’

Always a keen swimmer and surfer, three years ago Michelle suffered a serious leg injury while out surfing and she hasn’t been able to get back on her board again since. Seven months after her accident, when she was craving to get back in the water, she was shown
a monofin mermaid tail by her friend’s daughter. Impulsively, she bought herself one – she now has four of them, and 40 more of all sizes that she uses in her work – so swimming became part of her rehabilitation. ‘I decided I wasn’t going to get down in the dumps but I needed a low-impact form of exercise, and having a monofin tail made swimming so much more fun and creative,’ says Michelle, whose foray into the world of merfolk has spurred her on to get fit again.

When Michelle first swam with her mermaid tail, she was taken aback by the overwhelming response of the people on Bournemouth’s beaches. ‘Adults and children loved it – I could hear them saying, “Wow, there’s a mermaid in the water!” Seeing kids smiling back at me made me so excited about the possibilities of mermaiding,’ she says. At the time, there weren’t any mermaid instructors in the UK, but she discovered mermaid schools in the Philippines and the US where mermaids are big business. There, elaborate tailor-made silicone tails cost thousands and mermaids in tanks or as roadside attractions are regular occurrences. Only now is this trend beginning to hit British shores – this spring, more than 60 mermaids and mermen swam at the UK’s first Merfolk Convention in London.

In 2015, Michelle did a lifeguard course, then a shallow-water mermaid course in Germany with the Philippines-based International Mermaid Swimming Instructors Association, followed by a course with Cornwall’s Freedive UK on the Maltese island of Gozo. ‘It was so challenging, we’d be up at 7am every day holding our breath in the water for two to three minutes at a time. Dynamically, I can swim three lengths of a 25m pool without a single breath.’ Her aim now is to teach other mermaid instructors around the UK, so she’s currently working towards her 100 hours mermaid teaching to qualify as an instructor. This October, she returns to Gozo for a further freediving course.

Michelle describes freediving as ‘water yoga’ – calming and meditative – but potentially dangerous without proper training and safety knowledge. ‘The people I freedive with are so supportive, we’ve become like a family because we have to look out for each other.’ Michelle finds the sea therapeutic and is passing this on through her work as a mentor for The Wave Project, providing surfing therapy for kids in coastal areas. ‘Sometimes these children have never been to the beach and it can be a wonderful escape from difficult backgrounds or problems in school. It transforms them, increasing their self-esteem and confidence and reducing their anxiety. It’s really powerful,’ she explains.

In 2015 Michelle set up Mayim Mermaid Academy (mayim means water in Hebrew) and offers birthday parties, private lessons and hen parties with a mermaid vibe. She says: ‘I’ve never run a business before, and I’m not from a swimming instructor background like some mermaiding schools, but it’s driven by my passion.’ She has recently cut back her flying hours to focus more time on her new venture. As a teenager, she was obsessed with Disney’s animated film The Little Mermaid, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, which made the mermaid Ariel famous, and now most of the children she teaches love the Netflix series Mako Mermaids. ‘I help their dream become a reality. I show them choreography, educate them about the ocean and take photos. I teach them how to use the tail safely and remind parents never to leave them alone when swimming with a tail, and we communicate underwater with hand signals,’ she says.

If the pool they learn in is deeper than 1.5m, she’ll teach them how to equalise the pressure in their ears as they swim down, plus a few freediving basics. ‘It’s all about keeping your heart rate down, staying relaxed and composed while breathing slowly. I love what I do and want to give them a magical experience that encourages more confidence and an incentive to progress at swimming.’


• Unleash your inner Ariel. To join Michelle’s mermaid school, go to Follow her on Facebook @mayimmermaidacademy to find out about upcoming mermaid swim-bys in the Bournemouth area. 

• More mermaids. Lissy Raymond teaches mermaid courses at Freedive UK, Newquay, Cornwall (; Sarah Jaban runs monthly mermaid experiences in Hastings, East Sussex (; Carla Watkins offers mermaid hen parties in Colchester, Essex (; Laura Evans appears regularly on the beach at St Ives, Cornwall (@stivesmermaid on Twitter).