Shona Catlin was a stay at home mother of two until a mermaid-themed birthday party she threw for her oldest daughter, Kayla, provided her with the perfect entrepreneurial opportunity.
Catlin, the owner of Mermaid Barbados and a professional mermaid swimming instructor, sat down with Barbados TODAY after one of her Saturday classes to explain how the business started, its impact on the local marine life, and the value of the unique service to Barbados’ tourism product.
Her idea for the business was sparked by her daughter’s request for a mermaid party in November 2016.
“We had it at the beach. We had mermaids and you would not believe the amount of the attention that it garnered; it was unreal. Tourists were asking to come and take photos with the mermaid, parents were asking me if I could plan their party, and I jokingly said that I should turn this into a business and do this for a living. From there, my family was just like ‘why not?’” she recounted.
Just two months later, the business became a reality,
“It started off with my family encouraging me to be a kid’s party planner, but when I looked at the numbers it just didn’t make sense. It made more sense to turn it into a tourism product and so I sat down with Cheryl Carter, a family friend of mine who works at the Barbados Tourism Authority, and she explained to me how [Barbados’] tourism products work, how I needed to offer commission to activity desks, and the importance of having it online so tourists can book and plan ahead.
“In essence, she was the one who helped me with everything I needed to transition from kids parties into the tourism product that I wanted it to be,” Catlin said.
Between November and December, she worked aggressively on getting vendor rights for Barbados territory from Mertailor, one of the largest mermaid tail manufacturers in the world. A short time later – in January – Mermaid Barbados was officially launched.
The business initially offered photo shoots, mermaid parties and shark fins before it expanded to fin fit (a core exercise class) and now offers locals and tourists the opportunity to swim with “mermaids” at the shipwreck in Carlisle Bay.
Mermaid Barbados also teamed up with marine biologist Nikola Simpson.
“Our name on Instagram is Mermaid Barbados and Nikola’s name on Instagram is Barbados Mermaid, and I saw her work and what she was doing regarding marine life and ocean conservation and I wanted to incorporate it into Mermaid Barbados,” stated Catlin.
Simpson, who joined the conversation after her weekly fin fit class, told Barbados TODAY that she recognized the educational opportunity in the mermaid superheroes theme.
“I actually just gave Shona some little posters and cards and what she did at her parties and photo shoots was she told them ‘if you want to be a mermaid you have to be an ocean ambassador or an ocean defender and protect the ocean’. It was all part of trying to encourage kids to not use straws or plastic bags and clean up after themselves, whilst educating them on their role,” she said.
Saying that getting those messages across was crucial, Simpson added: “The ocean is so important to us, beyond tourism. Every breath we take, the oxygen, marine plants in the ocean are producing that, and currently there are so many threats that by 2050, if we don’t do anything about the plastic problem, there is going to be more plastic in the sea than fish.”
Simpson has worked on several projects involving sharks, turtles, whales and other marine animals, and she has seen the effects of the bad practices.
“I’ve been testing fish and even turtles. A lot of them have plastics in their stomach and they are dying. It’s actually quite scary because it goes down the food chain and a lot of us eat fish, so if you’re eating fish you’re probably eating plastics too,” Simpson noted, stressing that her intention is not to scare people but to make them more aware.
“When you add a mermaid tail to all that information and tell children that they are superheroes and they are protecting turtles, they remember and then you hear the children saying ‘mummy, don’t use that straw’, which is great,” she said.
Another aspect of the initiative – the introduction of swimming with a mermaid – is also aimed at helping turtles, Simpson explained.
“Our turtles bring a lot of tourism, but by feeding them so much we are killing them. So, instead of swimming with turtles, we want to offer tourists the opportunity to swim with mermaids or be a mermaid at the shipwreck.”
The business is giving back in many ways, with five per cent of its mermaid tails profits being donated to a non-profit ocean conservation charity and assisting Synchro Barbados, a synchronized swimming team/club.
Catlin has also agreed to fundraising efforts such as shows in mermaid tails for tourists, hotels and special events, in an effort to get the Synchro Barbados team to more international competitions.