Most days, they’re out in the open waters off Brackett’s Landing, swimming with magical sea creatures, alongside ferries, and in the 27-acre, man-made playground of the Edmonds Underwater Park — at one with the Salish Sea and each other.
They’re the Brackett’s Landing Mermaids, salt water and sandy grit in their veins, the one My Edmonds News writer Larry Vogel wrote about admiringly in his Feb. 15, 2021 feature.
The group of about 10-15 women, and growing, love to gather by the shore, gear up in their brightly colored swim caps, and plunge into misty, cool Puget Sound year-round, especially Brackett’s Landing North on Sunday morning.
Sometimes with their mermaid tails.
Brackett’s Landing Mermaids find each other by word of mouth and Facebook groups like the Western Washington Open Water Swimmers and North Sound Swimmers, which came in handy after authorities shut indoor pools down when Covid-19 hit, leaving many to search for alternative outlets.
“Swimming is my go-to for de-stressing. I found myself struggling during Covid, and without my preferred activity. I thought, people must swim in the Sound,” described Erinn Zavaglia, an Edmonds native and one of several Mermaids featured in Vogel’s piece.
“I did a Facebook search and discovered the Western Washington Open Water Swimmers page. I asked if anyone swam in Edmonds and Mary Sue Balazic (a seasoned mermaid) responded and offered to take me out for my first Sound swim. From that moment, I was hooked! Mary Sue is our queen mermaid who we all attribute starting our mermaid pod. She connected all of us and is the creator of the North Sound Swimmers Facebook page. We have regular weekly swims, last-minute swims, and swim events, such as ‘Newbie swims,’ where we encourage other women to try the sport, Dip n’ Donuts, 2/22/22 Tutu swim, and even swim adventures to other swim spots around the Sound.”
The Edmonds-Woodway High School grad and West-Seattle-raised, Green-Lake-based Vicki Weeks, who also appeared in the feature, join Katie McKenna and Debi K. for this exclusive interview.
It’s rainy, damp, and cold most of the year. How do you all deal with the freezing water? Looks like diving suits are in order.
Katie McKenna: Everyone is different. Some folks wear wetsuits, others swim “skins,” which means in a swimsuit. Almost everyone wears a warm head cover of some type, typically one made out of wetsuit material — neoprene.
Vicki Weeks: It turns out that some people adapt to cold water more easily than others. If I am popping in for a dip, I will wear a swimsuit with some kind of head covering, usually thermal, plus gloves and booties in the winter. If I want to swim longer, I will wear a wetsuit as well. I have gotten more used to the cold water over time, so I can stay in longer, but I can’t stay long enough for a proper swim without a wetsuit. Yet.
What’s it like to swim in Edmonds waters?
Debi K.: One day is never the same as the next day in the Puget Sound. This makes it very different from lake swimming. The wind, tides, and currents all affect the way the water moves and how you manage your swim. Being aware of the tidal exchange and direction is critical for safety. Swift currents can pull a swimmer into a dangerous area (ferry dock) and the combination of cold and strong currents can exhaust an inexperienced or overconfident swimmer.
Aside from this, it is a soulful, magical experience being immersed in the vast, ancient body of water that surrounds our planet and creates our weather.
Weeks: I echo everything Debi said, and would add that the Underwater Park makes it extra-special, because we see a lot of interesting sea life there, including seals, fish, various types of anemones, sea stars, and yes, sometimes jellyfish… plus it’s cool to swim next to the ferry boat.
Erinn Zavaglia: I feel so blessed to swim in Edmonds. Small craft advisories make for super-fun waves to stay in the shallows and play in. Calm days make for good, long-distance swims. Days where the water is clear make for fun exploring.
And sunset swims…those are magical. The sky lights up all pink and purple and the colors reflect on the water. To swim at sunset is to be a part of the sunset. After a stressful day, it feels so good to float on my back and be held in the water.
Favorite swim spots?
Debi K.: My favorite places to swim are Richmond Beach, Brackett’s Landing, Mutiny Bay on Whidbey Island, Rosario Beach on Fidalgo Island and Deadman’s Bay on San Juan Island. Most favorite of all time is Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii. All saltwater gems.
Weeks: I am fairly new to this, so I don’t have one favorite. I do love Brackett’s, plus Edgewater in Mukilteo is nice, and a couple of places in Seattle, including Alki Beach. Green Lake is sweet, because it’s right by my house, but I have enjoyed swimming a couple of places on Lake Washington as well. Now, when I travel, I try to swim whenever I can, so I have had some amazing swims on Lopez Island, Decatur Island, and Hawaii.
Zavaglia: Anytime I’ve had an encounter with an animal, the place suddenly becomes sacred to me. Brackett’s Landing North is my favorite swim spot in Washington; the anemone gardens, the seals, the fun kelp crabs, and the iridescent seaweed are all so special! I also enjoyed swimming at Watmough Bay on Lopez Island. Bowman Bay is pretty cool, too! I lived on Maui for six years and Napili Bay was my favorite swim spot there. I swam there almost every day for six years.
What have been some memorable moments out there swimming with your friends?
McKenna: The best part is going into the water with friends. I feel safer in a group and get to explore further. Also, some people in our group are marine biologists and they teach us so much!
Weeks: What Katie said! Plus, last year I participated in a Swim Safari, where we swam in a number of different lakes over the course of a day. I swam in places I had never been before and met some fabulous people. Also, a bunch of us did a fundraising swim benefit for Seattle Cancer Care Alliance in Lake Washington, which was the first event I had ever done, and the first continuous mile I had ever swum. Exhilarating!
Zavaglia: The only thing to add is when a seal decides to join the swim. Those moments are magical. They will get close and twirl underneath you. It’s like they are calling us to play.
Erinn, you also mentioned in Vogel’s feature that swimming helps ease headaches, after you suffered a concussion. If you don’t mind, what happened there? How does swimming relieve the headaches…does it make you forget you have them, or does it actually get rid of them?
Zavaglia: I got my concussion in January 2020 during a snowboarding lesson and have had post-concussion symptoms ever since. This was my second concussion and in the same spot. I have been struggling with daily headaches that range in severity: dizziness, brain fog, and emotion regulation.
It is only cold, salt water that relieves my headaches. I have to go in the water as soon as I feel them coming on. I tried swimming once during a migraine and almost passed out! I’m not sure what it is. When I told my neurologist about what I noticed, he said another patient of his does the same thing for headache relief.
Obviously, swimming also offers other health benefits, getting and keeping fit. What may surprise people?
Debi K.: Over the years, I have had bad sprains, a broken bone in my foot, and a bad knee injury. I get into the water a day or two after the injury and swim every day while recovering. The cold water reduces swelling and inflammation, while increasing circulation — this accelerates healing.
Weeks: Aside from the sheer joy, which lasts far longer than the swim, it boosts the immune system. I almost don’t dare to say out loud, but I was surrounded by Covid this winter — so many people around me and in my family got it, but I did not. I’m not sure, but it seems none of the mermaids got it either. I would love to see stats on this.
Zavaglia: Cold-water swimming has done wonders for my mental health. I struggle with anxiety and depression and have felt a huge reduction in my symptoms when I’m able to swim in the Sound on a regular basis. There has been some research done that backs this up.
The friendships! I have fallen into the greatest community of people with this crazy sport. The Seattle freeze does not exist within the open water community. This is seriously the best group of people. Loving, accepting, encouraging, and so supportive.
What are some exciting events Mermaids participate in? Maybe swimming the English Channel? Alki Beach to Seattle?
Zavaglia: Some ladies have participated in the Whidbey Island Adventure swim. I am excited to participate in that one in June. Mary Sue has swum around Coronado Island. She also trained to relay swim across the English Channel back in September, but the conditions weren’t in their favor. She has some more marathon swims coming up. Some of us Mermaids have talked about doing a relay swim from Alki to Bremerton and back this summer.
The ultimate open swim?
Debi K.: One morning, a bald eagle snatched a fish from the water’s surface only a few feet away from me, just as I turned my head to breathe. I felt the air from his wings move across my face. A seal once rolled over onto her back next to me, seemingly asking me to scratch her belly. I held my breath and didn’t move. I could see the details of her webbed toes and spotted fur. I’ve made eye contact with sea lions swimming under me, watched sea birds swim through the eel grass, and found myself in the middle of a school of thousands of shiny silver fish, swimming in a big circle all around me. In Hawaii, I bumped heads with a sea turtle as we accidentally swam into each other, swam along-side sleeping dolphins and watched manta rays glide through the water. Those few seconds interacting with the environment are ultimate open water swimming perfection, regardless of location.
Weeks: Swimming while a seal glided and did flips below me at Constellation Park early in my OWS adventures, swimming with sea turtles in Hawaii, full moon frolicking at Brackett’s, and pretty much any time I get in the water with friends.
Zavaglia: If you’re lucky enough to be in the open water, you’re lucky enough [smiles]. In all seriousness though, I would consider any time I have an encounter with wildlife while swimming an ultimate swim. In Hawaii during whale season, you can hear the humpback whale song underwater. I remember the first time I heard it, I stopped in my tracks and had goosebumps from head to toe. It was so magical. Anytime a sea creature approaches, I feel like they have accepted me into their home. It is so special.
Principal photography by Matt Hulbert, other images c/o Erinn Zavaglia