Return of the Mermaids

Lezey Yenquis-Perez, 3, made a finned friend (Emy Higdon) at the Return of the Mermaids event in 2014.

Tucson's mermaids will make you part of their world this weekend. 

Because, yeah, Tucson has mermaids. 

The annual Return of the Mermaids festival is once again transforming Fourth Avenue and downtown into a whimsical wonderland that celebrates rain, water and the monsoon. Festivities begin Saturday, Aug. 10 at 3 p.m.

(The make-believe) legend has it that every monsoon season, when the rains come down, the water sinks into the ground and awakens ancient mermaids who come out for one day, says Lizzie Mead, who co-organizes the festival with David Aguirre. 

"The goal is that people play and really let loose a bit," says Mead, who also owns Silver Sea Jewelry on Fourth Avenue. "We have a very serious world we're living in, and it's difficult to unplug from that, but this is very much an imagination event. It's a pretend event." 

There's plenty to do for both kids and grown-ups, with a dozen real-live mermaids, a costume contest, a treasure hunt and late-night surf party. (We'll give you more info about the schedule further down in the story.) 

The festival, now in its sixth year, attracts anywhere from 7,500 to 15,000 people, Mead says. 

If you want to truly experience the desert mermaid life, Mead recommends coming in costume. (Check out this story for some costume ideas).

"It's more exciting to feel like you're part of it by dressing up," she says. 

To help us all get into character, we chatted with three, professional Tucson mermaids you can meet at the festival. 

Michelle Mozdzen is a 34-year-old attorney by profession and mermaid by calling. She grew up in Arizona and currently lives in Tucson. A competitive swimmer for the last 24 years, she feels like she has always been a mermaid. Born in Texas, Mozdzen ⁠— who goes by Mermaid Michelle when she dons her tail ⁠— just won Miss Mermaid Texas in the Miss Mermaid USA competition. She has been mermaiding for about a year-and-a-half. 

Michelle Ruffo, or Mermaid Michelina, grew up in Upstate New York and has been swimming just about her whole life. She is a scuba diver, has worked on cruise ships on and off for more than 35 years and has done dolphin therapy with people with special needs. The ocean calls to her, and she splits her time between Tucson and San Carlos, Mexico. Here, she works mostly as a personal trainer and wellness lecturer. She's been mermaiding for at least seven years. 

Emy Higdon, 28, is Tucson's veteran mermaid, with more than 10 years of experience in character as Mermaid Odette. She's passionate about themed entertainment and also does STEM education in costume ⁠— even kids who don't think they care about science will listen to a mermaid. 

Editor's note: These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

Mermaid Michelle

Michelle Mozdzen, or Mermaid Michelle, is a competitive swimmer who discovered the joy of mermaiding. 

How she became a mermaid: When I was little, I was obsessed with pretending to be a whale or dolphin in the water. My friends and I would play whales and dolphins, and when I started getting older, I was like, "Be realistic. You'll never turn into a dolphin." Mermaiding was a compromise ... I've been swimming competitively for 24 years, and because I had been practicing dolphin kicks since I could swim, I was a butterflyer.

Throughout the years, my relationship with the water has been a place of freedom, a place of relaxation, and a place of challenge. I just felt that connection to the water has done so much for me and has been a way of challenging myself to what times can I beat or how fast can I go ... Swimming is my therapy ... When I discovered that swimmable mermaid tails were a thing a few years ago, I was like, "Why not? This is my life."

The best thing about being a mermaid: It just fits so naturally into my passion and love for the water, because I love sharing my joy of the water with others, and that's one of the reasons I teach private swim lessons and work with kids ... If I can help someone who is afraid of the water have a joyful experience going into the water, that's my goal. 

Mermaid Michelina 

The Mermaid Michelina, Michelle Ruffo, presses against the glass display window at the Tucson Thrift Shop, transformed into an “aquarium”, for the Return of the Mermaids, Saturday, August 12, 2016, Tucson, Ariz. Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star

How she became a mermaid: Because I do physical therapy and dolphins are my main love, I just had this crazy idea while I was working with the dolphins (in San Carlos) that I wanted to be like them, and I came up with the mermaid. ... That's when I invented Mermaid Michelina.

The best thing about being a mermaid: Just seeing all the people laugh and giggle and just have a really magical time. Everybody's worries seem to disappear for a while when they see a mermaid.

Mermaid Odette

Emy Higdon, maybe better known as Mermaid Odette, checks her appearance in a clamshell mirror. The Tucson Mermaid Parade returns Aug. 12 on North Fourth Avenue and downtown.

How she became a mermaid: I started at Valley of the Moon. I had volunteered there since I was 13, and I helped out with the costumes. One actor asked me to make a mermaid tail for a play, and it turned out absolutely terrible. I was determined after that to try make something amazing and realistic that people could really enjoy, like they were meeting a real mermaid. ... I think my first gig was at Valley of the Moon, and I sat in a pool of water and splashed kids and acted in character.

The best thing about being a mermaid: I really love when you get that spark out of the kids and you can see that they are truly interested and invested in the performance and in love with the idea that this is a real mermaid. ... When I flip my fins and they start giggling, that's to live for. 


Click here for the complete schedule and more event information. 

Fourth Avenue

2 p.m. "Friends of Make Pretends" mermaid show for kids with Tucson Improv Movement, 414 E. Ninth Street. $5 admission. 

3 p.m. Public Brewhouse, 209 N. Hoff Ave., is serving up glitter beers (until the glitter runs out) and offering discounts to people dressed up for the occasion. Rustic Candle Company, 324 N. Fourth Ave., has a mermaid art installation.

3-6 p.m. The first 200 kids (or grown-ups who want to play) can go on a treasure hunt around Fourth Avenue and get prizes at participating businesses. Pick up your map at Silver Sea Jewelry, 330 N. Fourth Ave. Goodwill is also offering free airbrush tattoos at this time. 

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3-7 p.m. Mermaid photo booth at Pop Cycle, 422 N. Fourth Ave

3 p.m. - 2 a.m. Bison Witches, 326 N. Fourth Ave., is having a luau on the back patio. 

4-7 p.m. Meet Mermaid Odette and her mermaid friends at Haggerty Plaza, 316 N. Fourth Ave. The festivities here include an acro yoga performance at 4 p.m., the Dread Fleet Pirate Show at 4:30 p.m., story time with Make Way for Books and Faerie Emilie at 5 p.m. and belly dancing mermaids at 6 p.m. 

5-8 p.m. Play and sing mermaid-themed games and songs at the Hut, 305 N. Fourth Ave. and check out Mermaid Michelina in live aquarium at Tucson Thrift Shop, 319 N. Fourth Ave

9 p.m. - 2 a.m. Grown-up after party at Irene's Holy Donuts, 340 N. Fourth Ave. There's no cover charge for this party for ages 21 and up. 


All downtown festivities take place at The Deep Blue (aka the Beach), 55 N. Fifth Ave. 

3-10 p.m. The Mermaid Market includes vendors offering face painting, costumes, local art and more. Professional mermaids, including Odette, will be hanging out in the shell chair at various times throughout the evening. You can also take photos with the mermaid pageant queens at their cabana. 

4 p.m. Food trucks

5:15 p.m. Catch an acro yoga performance.

5:30 p.m. Dread Fleet Pirate Show

6 p.m. Kids dance party on stage.

7 p.m. Meet the Royal Mermaid Court. 

7:30 p.m. Costume contest for all ages (infants through adults). All participants get a small ice cream cone from the Dairy Queen on Fourth Avenue. 

8:30 p.m. Mermaid parade on Congress Street. To participate wear a costume or escort your costumed child. 

9:15 p.m. Lykiska Tribal Fusion belly dance troupe performs. 

9:30 p.m. Become the Mermaid Pageant's Bella de Santa Cruz (newly named for the flowing Santa Cruz River). The pageant is open to all, but may have some adult content. 

Go here for more information about Return of the Mermaids.