Story by Kevin Whitton
Photos by Elyse Butler
Kari Holcomb can’t help the fact that she’s got legs; she was born that way. But Kari—or, as she calls herself, Kariel— is really a fish trapped in a woman’s body. And like the Disney mermaid Ariel who inspired her stage name, Kariel has always dreamed of life in a different element. “I was 3 years old when I saw The Little Mermaid in the theater,” she says. “It was my first movie experience, and I’ve been infatuated with mermaids ever since.”
So she did what any mer-wannabe would do: She made a tail, replete with a decorated fluke (actually a freediver’s monofin covered with sparkles and scales) and went swimming near her West O‘ahu home. “It felt so graceful and beautiful, what I imagine being a mermaid feels like,” says Kari, who has since trained herself to hold her breath for almost three minutes and dive to fifty feet. “I feel at peace, like part of ocean. And because of the monofin, I go really fast. I can kind of keep up with dolphins.”
Kari has since made several more tails out of recycled neoprene wetsuits and eco-friendly paints; each takes up to five hundred hours to complete and is covered with embellishments that sparkle and dance in the water. (How she makes them, though, is a trade secret.) It wasn’t long before her hobby attracted attention at beaches across O‘ahu, and from there Kariel metamorphosed from amateur to professional merwoman, performing at O‘ahu resorts—you can find her cavorting in the pools at the Ko Olina Beach Club and the Sheraton Waikiki—and helping others express their inner merfolk by renting out tails for photo shoots. She also teaches an aquatic fitness class at the JW Marriot Ihilani (yes, students wear monofins for the workout).
Despite the fact that, according to legend, the appearance of a mermaid was an omen of doom for sailors, “Mermaid Kariel is less Pirates of the Caribbean and more Splash,” says Kari, her flowing blond hair befitting her alter ego. “Mermaids are magical, beautiful ocean creatures that people deep inside wish were real, so I’ve become the realest mermaid I know.”