9:27 AM CDT, July 6, 2012
One of John Athanson's earliest memories is seeing mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs, the "City of Live Mermaids."
Today, the 47-year-old is the public relations manager for Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, and has been for 10 years.
The park north of Tampa, Florida, hosts shows year-round involving women dressed as mermaids. It bills itself as "a magical entrance into a mysterious blue underwater world of mermaids, manatees, turtles and bubbles."
"If you ask me, (mermaids) do exist," Athanson said Thursday. "They exist, and they exist right here in Weeki Wachee."
He was responding to the U.S. government's fresh announcement to the contrary.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has published an unexpected statement to its website explaining that there is no evidence the legendary "half-human, half-fish sirens of the sea" have ever lived.
"We had gotten a couple of questions about mermaids recently," NOAA spokeswoman Keeley Belva told CNN with a laugh. "The timing may have been because there was a documentary or movie that came out."
The Discovery Channel's Animal Planet aired "Mermaids: The Body Found" on May 27, a two-hour special the show's website says "paints a wildly convincing picture of the existence of mermaids, what they may look like and why they've stayed hidden... until now."
An editor's note on the page states that the show is "science fiction based on some real events and scientific theory." But the film takes on an air of academic authority.
The documentary-style film features a number of people identified as marine experts as well as photographs and videos from fishermen who said they've seen mermaids. Former NOAA employees share their thoughts on whale beachings and government secrecy.
But the main focus of the film is scientific evidence and theories that support the idea of "aquatic humanoids," as the NOAA calls them. Filmmakers animate how early humans might have moved from land to sea and chronicle the appearance of mermaids in art throughout history and among various cultures.
The experts, narrator and even music are somber.
Some viewers take the movie seriously.
"I honestly think it is selfish of people to think we are the only human creatures on earth," YouTube user Tjkitty67 wrote in a comment. "There is stuff out there we can't explain."
Other users posted comments questioning government secrecy, debating the scientific veracity of physical similarities between humans and aquatic mammals or -- in most cases -- making fun of viewers who believed the fictitious aspects of the "mockumentary."
"Funny how the NOAA has to make a news report that mermaids don't exist because some misunderstood citizens of America start a debate of their existence just because they watch a documentary," wrote user WolfenOnTheDSI.
But Athanson sees no harm in believing mermaids exist.
"Our mermaids here at Weeki Wachee can get really into it," he said. "Whatever you believe becomes true. And if you believe you're a mermaid, you're a mermaid."
He said young visitors often ask whether or not the mermaids are real.
"Just like with Santa Claus or any other mythical character, we always say yes," he said. "We're not going to tell them they're not real."
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