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Sport 38: Winter 2010

Mermaid Fever

page 251

Mermaid Fever

Among the curious customs of the New Zealanders, a belief in mermaids. . .

—Charles de Thierry

A description of the New Zealand 'mermaid'

The New Zealand mermaid is not generally supposed to be golden-haired, like her German cousin the Lorelei, nor does she alternate between the forms of seal and woman, as does the Scottish selkie. Instead, the mermaid who makes her rare appearances on the rocky shores and wilder points of the New Zealand coastline is of dark complexion, with skin faintly resembling that of a seal. Her hair, which is thick and abundant, is reminiscent of kelp. The mermaid's most distinctive feature, her tail, is said to possess a dark translucency which has been compared both to the appearance of a stormy ocean, and to the interior of the common mussel shell (Perna canaliculus): the predominantly indigo colouring of this shell has an opalescent sheen which can include violet, green, and cerulean tints. The lower half of the mermaid has been observed to contain encrustations of limpets and other small, pearl-like shells; the dramatic contrast of these against the predominantly dark background can be imagined. Among scientists the mermaid has long been supposed to be a southern species of manatee (Trichechus). However, Mr E R Dodson of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research argues that the mermaid, if she exists, is more likely to be a species of giant eel.

from A H McDermott: History and Geography of the New Zealand Shoreline (1966)


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The greater frequency of mermaid sightings on the southern shores of the South Island, Rakiura and the other, offshore islands historically the haunt of sealers and whalers, has fuelled speculation that the mermaid's home may lie in the Southern Ocean, the great expanse of rough water and weather that lies between the south coasts of New

Zealand and the Antarctic.1

No specimen of 'mermaid' exists. This is despite the persistent rumour that a consignment of shrunken heads illicitly taken on board the HMS Sorrowful in 1862 included one that bore no moko, had hair like kelp, amphibian features and was described as 'indubitably the head of that rarest of creatures, the New Zealand mermaid . . .'

from C H Kettle: Myths and Legends of the Southern Ocean (1997)


Some accounts emphasise the visionary nature of the experience, comparing it to a vivid, waking dream. Others recall the 'voice' of the mermaid, a kind of melodious, seductive vibration that has been compared variously to a lullaby, the humming of telegraph wires, wind chimes, the whistling of dolphins, and a distant choir of female voices 'carrying the memory of things long forgotten or never consciously known'. Most agree that the experience is accompanied by a mysterious sense of being 'unlocked' or 'lifted'. As poet Isobel Fortune has written, 'she cannot be imagined and can only be imagined/ haunting us like the voice of the sea/ proffering the key that unlocks/ our voices/ourselves . . .

from Glenys Berson (ed): These Islands: an anthology of prose and poetry inspired by the New Zealand coastline (1995)


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Yesterday Mr Williams visited in the afternoon, riding all the way from Parakia on his horse, Sheba. Our mother invited him to dine with us, and he accepted with alacrity, regaling us throughout the meal with the most astonishing stories of this new land. Mr Williams claims to have gone much among the local Maoris, and he recounted such tales—of spirits, enchanted weapons, carvings that speak and ancestors who return to members of their tribe in the form of whales and dolphins—that left us open-mouthed with wonder.

The most remarkable tale, which he solemnly swore to be true, concerns the strange, serpent-like creature which is sometimes glimpsed rising from the ocean, and which pakehas (the word, Mr Williams explained, by which the natives designate Europeans) call a 'mermaid'.

Mr Williams explained that it is considered fortunate indeed to glimpse such a creature. This is because the New Zealanders believe that anyone who sees a mermaid will be blessed with the gift of a unique poetic or artistic inspiration.

On hearing this my sisters and I all demanded of Mr Williams whether he had ever been granted such a vision.

He replied that he had not, but that the possibility was never far from his thoughts, whenever he happened to be walking on the seashore or scrambling over rocks. 'For it is well-known' he told us, 'that mermaids favour the wilder portions of the coast, and are not deterred by heavy seas or storms'.

After Mr Williams had ridden away again on Sheba, we discussed the tales he had told us.

Our mother gave her opinion that it might be best if Mr Williams never saw a mermaid for, on the basis of his stories, he already possessed a sufficient quantity of the gift of poetic imagination, and who knew what he might do or say if he acquired more.

from Flora Dobson: The New Zealanders at home: Diary of a colonial childhood (1916)


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It wasn't until I was about to publish my second book that I felt comfortable telling people I'd seen a mermaid. By that time my first book of poems, A Harp at Spirit's Bay, had been published and received a positive response and I was feeling more confident about my second.

I first mentioned the experience in an interview on the TV arts programme, The Book Show. Since then, whenever I do a public reading, people always ask me about the mermaid sighting. They want to know what the mermaid looked like, and what effect it had on me.

The closest I can get to describing it is to say that something inside me changed forever. Looking back I can see that I had always suffered from a sense of 'inner fright'. At the core of my being was a sense that I was unworthy, that I wouldn't stand up to scrutiny. I guess I acquired it in some dark alleyway of the Presbyterian conscience.

Anyway, after I saw the mermaid, that inner flight fled. In its place there seemed to be something that was smooth, powerful and indigo—like a column of water moving under constant pressure. The poems in A Harp at Spirit's Bay came from that place.

It happened on a very windy day, one of the roughest days of the year. The state highway had to be closed for a few hours at high tide, because the sea was lobbing bits of driftwood at the cars.

I was the only person walking on the beach that afternoon. I was there because I was walking my dog. She's a Staffordshire terrier cross, a very energetic dog and I'd been sick so she hadn't had a walk for days.

Anyway, there we both were in this incredible wind, with the sea crashing all around us. I must have been crazy. The mermaid began as a sort of agitation in the water that spread to everything. It affected the light as well.

There is something about the experience that opens a channel right into the centre of yourself. I can't describe it in any other way. It's as if something that was vague and imaginary suddenly becomes real. But you can't describe it in words. That's the catch. You can talk about it, but not describe it.

'An Interview with Kay Walsh', NZ Listener, 21 November 2001

page 255


. . . It was late afternoon and the sun had disappeared behind cloud. In its shadow sky and sea were the colour of flint, with occasional flashes of silver where the light caught the waves.

Harvey Stretch had followed a flock of white-breasted terns towards the kahawai's feeding grounds, and was baiting his line when a movement in the shallows drew his eyes towards the shore.

The mermaid was resting within the bay formed by two arms of rock. She seemed to rise and fall gently with each exhalation of the tide. Her tail, which was at once muscular and lithe, reminded Stretch irresistibly of the drawings of sea snakes in the books he'd perused as a child.

The mermaid was not looking at Harvey Stretch. Her attention was focused on the man with dark straight hair who was sitting on the beach close to the shore. He returned the mermaid's gaze with such intensity that to Stretch it felt as if the two were joined by an invisible current. Above the constant pulsing of the sea he seemed to feel rather than to hear a humming vibration, like a distant wind passing through the hollow spaces of macrocarpas.

When the mermaid sank beneath the water and vanished, Harvey Stretch watched the dark-haired man pass his hand across his forehead. To Stretch he seemed like a man released from a trance but not yet aware of his surroundings. From his vantage point in the bobbing dinghy, Stretch observed him knot the ends of his handkerchief and start walking in the direction of Windy Bay. A few minutes later Harvey Stretch pulled up his line and began to row in the same direction.

from Frank Cloud: Night Fishing (Wellington: Entry Press, 2008)


Some biographies

Alfred Mudd (1849—1919)
Mermaid Sighting off Astrolabe Bay, August 1881

'I have led the life of a wanderer,' Alfred Mudd wrote to his mother in Manchester in 1903, 'and have nothing to show for it but impressions and sketches.' Mudd's modest statement gives little idea of the epic scale of his larger paintings in oils. His most famous canvas, Mermaid page 256 Sighting off Astrolabe Bay, August 1881, measures over three metres in length and is almost two metres wide. Painted in 1883, it was purchased by Dunedin banker and politician William Larnach who hung it in the ballroom of his castle on the Otago Peninsula. Following Larnach's death in 1889, it was acquired by the Dunedin Art Gallery.

Today, it greets visitors as they walk through the gallery's door, roped off to protect it from those who would press their faces too close to the gleaming oil paint as if wishing to propel themselves into the sublime moment painted by Mudd: the ultramarine ocean with its luminous splashes of white, the inaccessible mountain behind it, and the mermaid rising from the water like an Antipodean Medusa, shaking out serpentine locks in which sea-wrack, kelp and Neptune's necklace are wound.

It is often assumed that Mermaid Sighting off Astrolabe Bay, August 1881 records Mudd's own experience. In fact, the work is based on a description that appeared in the Oamaru Daily Mail of a mermaid sighting by John Knocks, a former sealer.

Certainly Mudd visited Astrolabe Bay, where he spent a week in 1882 making detailed sketches. By then, however, the waters of the bay were calm, and no mermaid appeared to ruffle their surface.

By that time Knocks had also left the district, traveling to the West Coast where he briefly worked as a publican before settling in Westport. Here, he gained a reputation for his exquisite carvings in bone of chess pieces and other small, decorative items. In Westport Knocks also began, with the assistance of his second wife, Airihi Herangi, to explore Maori cosmology, eventually changing his name to Ehekiera ('Ezekial'). During this time he designed and manufactured the deck of cards known as the 'Westport Tarot'. The pack is notable for its unique blend of traditional European symbols with figures and motifs borrowed from Maori mythology and art. This syncretism is carried over to the backs of the cards, which feature a design in which Celtic motifs are interlaced with the decorative pattern known variously as unaunahi (fish scales) or ritorito (young shoots of a flax plant).2 In the 'Westport Tarot' the page 257 card of the High Priestess is represented by a figure with serpentlike tail and the body and face of a woman; it is assumed to portray either a marakihau or mermaid.

Violet d'Ath (1901—1932)
Novelist, author of The Ice Station

'and the wind's breath moving across the bay, carrying the memory of icebergs . . .'

Daughter of the lighthouse keeper at Point Medusa, Violet D'Ath claimed to have seen a mermaid in the autumn of 1910 while walking to meet the mail launch from Bluff. Eighteen months later, she published her remarkable novel, The Ice Station. Described as 'New Zealand's first truly Gothic novel', The Ice Station is the story of Thora Sars, daughter of the manager of a whaling station on South Georgia. Thora, the only child on the station, is haunted by the spectral figure of a woman dressed in white. The novel leaves unresolved whether the figure is the spirit of her dead mother, a figment of a lonely child's imagination, or an incarnation of the South Pole itself, which Thora visualises as the guardian spirit of the whales and other sea mammals that the men of South Georgia hunt and render for blubber.

The novel has been admired for its unflinching depiction of the brutality of life on a whaling station, where the water occasionally turns red with blood, and the stench of rotting carcasses and rendered fat contrasts with the stark beauty of the sub-Antarctic surroundings. It is also notable for its portrayal of a father who loves his daughter, but is unable to communicate with her or to meet her emotional needs.

Violet D'Ath was working on another novel when, while walking to a dentist's appointment, she was struck by a tram in Princes Street, Dunedin. Rushed to hospital where an examination revealed no major injuries, she died a week later from the effects of a dislodged kidney. Several Dunedin residents have claimed to have seen an ethereal figure, robed in white, at the intersection of Princes and High Streets where the accident occurred.

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Percy Lithgow (1918—2005)
Oboist and composer

An oboe player and aspiring composer, Percy Lithgow claimed to have seen a mermaid in 1948 while camping on Codfish Island with his companion, bassoonist Miles Sanderson.

Later that year Lithgow composed 'Soundings', his haunting suite for orchestra and solo bassoon, and the first composition by a New Zealander to make use of the pentatonic scale.

from A E Braithwaite (ed) Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Toshio Satoe (1919 —)

In the winter of 1951 Toshio Satoe was walking on the rocky point just south of Brendan Beach when a movement in the water caught his attention.

Satoe, who had traveled from his home near Osaka to visit the country where his brother had died in the failed prisoner uprising at Featherston in 1943, never spoke of why he happened to be exploring that particular stretch of coastline. The most likely explanation is that the visitor, not completely satisfied by the food served to him at the Majestic Guest House, had gone out with the aim of collecting some of the shellfish and edible seaweed he had observed growing on the nearby rocks.

Satoe had gathered some mussels and was retying his shoelaces when, chancing to look up, he came face to face with the creature he would later describe, in halting English to staff at the Majestic Guest House, as woman-fish.

Afterwards, Satoe was unable to recall how much time passed during the encounter. Nor did he recall the details of his journey back to his accommodation on the Centennial Highway, although the mussels and sea lettuce he had collected were still wrapped in his handkerchief.

Back in his room at the Majestic Guest House, Satoe sought to page 259 calm his sense of agitation by reading a book he had brought with him, a guide to the astronomy of the southern skies. But to his surprise, instead of restoring a sense of normalcy, Satoe found that certain words and phrases seemed to stand out from the rest, almost as if they were trying to propel themselves from the page.

With a sense of urgency but no conscious plan, Satoe began to rewrite the text, preserving the highlighted phrases, instinctively rearranging the fragments across the page while maintaining the spaces between them. The result was a strange and fragmented poetry that seemed to hang from the page like a tattered banner or a portion of the night sky, irregularly scattered with constellations. Satoe named the transfigured work The Eclipses; its method is hinted at in the lines, occurring towards the end of the third section, which read:

                     To erase the skies
         to let the stars go out,
                                       one by one
                  growing the night.

Satoe's The Eclipses did not find its way back to New Zealand, in translation, for another two decades. The work had a more immediate impact in Japan, where Satoe became the reluctant hero of an avant-garde that promoted erasure as a tool in the quest to re-make traditional poetic forms—those forms which, as Satoe himself wrote, 'hold us tightly in their embrace, as if to keep us from falling off the edge of the world'.

from Ichiyo, Steve: Satoe: poet of the tremulous world (Berkely, Calif.: Echo Press, 2003)

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Olive Burling (1922—)

A longtime resident of Timaru and botanical illustrator, Olive Burling saw a mermaid while visiting her sister and brother-in-law in the coastal resort of Raumati. The sighting occurred during a trip to Kapiti Island. Burling was sketching a clump of grasses at the southernmost tip of the island while her brother-in-law fished from his dinghy on the other side of the island, when an alteration in the colour of the sky made her look up from her page.

Of the experience she would later say only that 'the light changed for me'.

Burling was unable to recall how much time passed before the mermaid sank beneath the waves and the light returned to normal. Silent during the journey back to her sister and brother-in-law's house, she went out the next day and purchased oil paints. Using a discarded set of sails she found in the garage as canvas, she painted the works that would become the basis of the Keel series: Keel I, II, III, IV and V.

In these paintings bold swathes of ochre, cream and brown paint, applied with both brush and palette knife are anchored by the dark vertical shapes that rise from the base of the canvas, bisecting the paintings like a great keel. The colours and shapes appear to float in space; a space that is invented by the artist and has been described as 'profoundly meditative, while not excluding the world'. Ostensibly the record of the changing light over the course of a single day, Burling's Keel series possesses a power which, like Satoe's The Eclipses, compels its audience, even while its meaning eludes comprehension.

Burling continued to work on a monumental scale using unstretched canvas. Besides Keel I, II, III, IV and V, she is most well known for the twelve paintings that comprise the Hieroglyphics series.

from 'Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand'


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'Mermaid Fever' comes to the Kapiti Coast

On the Kapiti Coast there is a saying, 'To dream of beaches and wake with sand in your bed.' Generally, it is used to caution those who are in danger of letting their imagination run away with them, mistaking wishes and dreams for the solid forms of reality.

Yet in the autumn of 1951 it seemed that everyone was dreaming of beaches and few thought to caution them. 'Mermaid Fever' had come to the coast and, as the hotels and guest-houses swelled with visitors all hoping for a sighting of the elusive creature, a sense of excitement, an almost electric energy, ran from one end of the coast to the other.

To entertain the visitors, the Waikanae Ladies' Choir were persuaded to give a special performance, while Olive Burling's paintings Keel I, II, III, IV and V could be viewed at the Raumati Scout Hall pending their transfer to the National Art Gallery. A menu from the Centennial Inn for 1951 shows that guests dined on Potage à l'Américaine, followed by a choice of Roast Saddle of Mutton or Pressed Ox Tongue, both served with potatoes and green peas; dessert was Fruit Salad and Cream, or Blanc Mange with Prunes. A photograph of popular Paraparaumu band, the Hinemoa Hotspots, suggests that those still eager for entertainment drove to the Coronation Hall where they danced to midnight to the Hotspots' favourite tune, 'Send me a Mermaid'. From there, they returned beneath the starlight to their borrowed beds, sleeping soundlessly until the early morning when the north-bound freight train rumbled through their dreams, dispelling other, more ineffable melodies.

A discordant note was introduced when a driver lost control of his car on the state highway, and crashed into rocks just south of Paekakariki. In its editorial for 19 July 1951, Wellington newspaper the Dominion queried whether the accident should be regarded as evidence of 'the dangerous fascination ascribed to the mermaid, who is traditionally said to lure the unwary to their doom on the rocks'.

The admonitory tone was continued in the Editorial, which read:

It appears that two sightings of the legendary amphibian, one apparently involving a foreign national, have been sufficient to lure unprecedented numbers of visitors to the beaches of the Kapiti Coast.

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It must also be said that the coast is enjoying an unusually mild winter. However, should the elusive mermaid fail to appear, and the spell of good weather be broken, we question how long 'Mermaid Fever' will continue to hold the public in its grip.

A week after these prophetic words were printed, a cold front swept in from the sea. Rain and wind lashed the beaches, rattling the doors and windows of baches along the Parade and Esplanade. A veil of cloud descended over Kapiti Island, concealing it from view. As the visitors cut short their holiday or huddled around log fires, 'mermaid fever' subsided almost as quickly as it had arisen, and the beaches were left once more to gulls, fishermen, and solitary walkers.

from Iris Dorizac: A Centennial History of Kapiti and its surrounds (1997)


Rediscovering Frank Cloud

There seem to have been an unusual number of sightings on the Kapiti Coast.

Yes, definitely, and that's one of the reasons so many artists and writers have moved out there. Of course, how many of these sightings actually happened can be disputed—I mean, the coast—there was a lot of drinking going on out there and, these days, cannabis and, and so forth. You get poets, Sleevely for instance, who claimed to have seen a mermaid every week, on the way home from the pub. Perhaps he did.

What about Frank Cloud?

Oh—definitely. But the amazing thing about Cloud was that he could never recognise it as a genuine event, as something that was intended for him. Basically, he refused to accept the gift. There's a line in Night Fishing where the narrator says of the protagonist, Harvey Stretch, 'He could never fully profit from the experience because he did not page 263 believe it was meant for him.' That was absolutely Frank Cloud's experience.

So 'Night Fishing' is autobiographical?

About the mermaid sighting, yes. There's that early episode in the novel when Stretch sees the mermaid, but the mermaid isn't looking at him. Its attention is on someone else. Harvey Stretch is looking at the mermaid look at someone else—presumably, Toshio Satoe. Then when the woman comes to his house out of the night and the storm, and he invites her in and they become lovers—the same thing happens. He can't believe that she has chosen him. He suspects that she is looking past him, as it were, at another man. Doubt gnaws at him and the fact that she can't tell him anything about her past turns his doubt into conviction.

That seems more the case after the scene at the marae.

At Wairaka marae Harvey Stretch sees the carving of the marakihau —a taniwha with serpent tail and a human face and body. The carving has a profound effect on him. He becomes convinced that the woman and the mermaid are one and the same and that she is a marakihau—a sea-monster. So his suspicions become more and more outrageous, and lead to predictably tragic consequences.

Was that also true of Cloud?

I don't know about tragic. But, certainly, he wasn't able to acknowledge his own gift. Night Fishing is—in my opinion—one of the finest novels written by a New Zealander. But Cloud never published it. It was all there, basically. He just couldn't push it out into the world—couldn't acknowledge it. There's definitely this aspect to his life that was, well, disappointing. Yet for all of that, I think Cloud came closest to expressing the essential nature of the mermaid.

What did he say?

There's a scene at the end of Night Fishing, when Harvey Stretch is packing his suitcase—ironically, with the things he intends to leave behind. When he is preparing to go out and, in the words of the narrator 'step off the rim of the world'. He is looking at a photograph page 264 of the woman, the only memento of her he has left, and he asks 'What was the gift of the mermaid, its true nature?' And the answer he gives is, 'The gift was love, nothing but love'.

1 The notion of an underwater marae in the southern ocean populated by mythological creatures is brought to life in Philip Raukawa-Smith's play Tangaroa, first performed in 1986, which dramatises an imagined encounter between Tangaroa, an embodiment of the ocean, and Robert Falcon Scott, as the latter journeys to the Ross Sea on the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition.

2 Poet James K Baxter is reported to have dreamed of the 'Westport Tarot' in 1969, shortly before his departure for Jerusalem. (This anecdote is recounted by Patrick Lawlor in his book The Two Baxters.)