During the initial descent towards the reef, my guide from Dive Sirena™ — who has asked me to call her Fabiana — is slightly impatient, only a twitch at the tip of her fin giving away her mood. She wants to get to the good stuff, the bright coral reef that lies beneath the crystal clarity of the Caribbean. I could take my mask off and simply float away to wherever the current takes me. But that’s not why I’m here. I came to meet a man-made myth, who insists a dive with her will give far more insight into her than the humdrum of a traditional interview. We finish the initial descent, and she begins to show me around the reef.
Eighteen months before donning mask and fins in the Caribbean, I was sitting behind my desk at Voracious!.com when my editor shot me an email outlining the opportunity of a lifetime. I would have one dive with Fabiana. She would do the dive briefing herself, and she would have complete control over the interview questions. As with the few interviews Fabiana has done, Dive Sirena™ would have final say over content.
My co-workers continue to insist that I was insufferably giddy for weeks, but I maintain that it wasn’t because I would be talking with a fairytale. (Well, okay, maybe just a little, itty-bitty bit. But just maybe it was because I could get my daughter’s Sirena Magic Marine Doll™ signed and be the coolest parent ever.) I wanted to discover who this woman was that medical science had swooped in to save by making her the first hybrid. Is it possible she could be happier now with a fin than with two legs?
The New England Journal of Medicine is filled with articles on how it was done, and not some few on why it had to be done, but people are curious about the person to whom it was done. Media outlets have constantly sought to feed that curiosity with the spectacle and circus of Sirena™, as the parent corporation officially refers to her post procedure. But during the long months of research and preparation leading up to the interview, I found myself wondering who was the girl Fabiana had been? And who is she now?
It’s hard not to be entranced by the fluid motion of Fabiana’s iridescent scales slipping and swaying to and fro just above the corals and sponges as she points out a colony of pocillopora. The pale brown coral colony looks like a splinter of cauliflower ready to be dipped in cheese. “Very rare,” she writes on her digital armband for me to read since we can’t talk underwater, and she means that the type of coral is rare for the Caribbean. Hovering above the reef, she scribbles messages for me on a top-of-the-line, dermi-plastic dive tablet with a stylus. It’s her brand, Oceana Tab MK III-e™, which she never mentions, never even seems to notice. It would pay for a half-year’s tuition for my daughter at a good college.
Fabiana used the tablet to plan the dive using real-time data and GPS before we got in the water, and during the dive it displays route progress and continuously updates safe bottom time while monitoring my vitals and all my equipment wirelessly. The need for a tether made from a shoelace seems an anachronism. She could tuck the stylus into the magnetic notch designed to carry it. Yet a woman who has no feet uses a shoelace. And that sense of mismatch is exactly what I feel the entire time I’m around her. What shouldn’t be, is.
Fabiana stops, grabs my attention with a hard tap of her finger, points at a coral fan, or a sea whip, or an emperor fish, patiently waits each time for me to take the object in, then moves on. And like that tethered stylus, I can’t help but follow.
I wouldn’t have noticed the pocillopora coral without her. At only three centimeters, it’s not exactly the most dynamic thing on the reef, yet she’s so excited. Her smile is hard to see around her breather, but I know it’s there. It’s far easier to deduce her mood from the emphatic way she scribbles the message “Brand New!” – yes, she takes the time to write the exclamation mark and then underlines the whole thing three times. Every knob, every crevice, every minute undulation of the reef seem to be painted on the inside of her eyelids in exacting, loving detail, and she immediately sees any variation.
Incidentally, the rumors (Serena™ Can’t Blink! And Fish Girl More Fish than Girl), are wrong. Though she doesn’t need a dive mask, she does have eyelids.
It’s hard not to be excited with Fabiana. She’s genuine when talking about the seas (Save Our Ocean—Save Ourselves) and about reef conservation (Reefs!). Refreshingly genuine. She’s the best voice the ocean and all the life teeming within it could possibly have. Fabiana is infectious.
The official name, the one that appears on government documents like her passport, (yes, she does have one – she legally is a person) appears as Sirena™. The name came with the fin. And like the fin, you better believe that use and licensing are strictly enforced. The name’s meant to conjure up all the mythologies of sirens and mermaids of Western literature. But while Westerners may have been the initial target because they were considered more capable of coughing up the original €1,000,000 price tag (as of three years ago) for a day with two dives, wealthy Europeans and Americans have had to get in line from the moment Fabiana slid into the water. The wait time for a slot when this article went to print was nineteen months – if you could get on the list to begin with. Rumor has it the Chinese ambassador to the UN had to cede a natural resource concession to the parent company that owns (Dive Sirena™) just to queue up. (Dam Shame: Did Zhang Wei Trade Dam Concession for Sushi?)
And the current cost? I couldn’t pry the fee out of Dive Sirena™’s cold dead hands. Even my editor was under a gag order. The good news is that the air tanks, the transfer to the site by custom luxury catamaran, and a light snack between dives are all included. There’s even caviar. I kid you not.
People pay the cost because they get to dive with an actual mermaid but, like every other human on the planet, Fabiana began with two legs and a name, not a trademark. Her birth certificate identifies her as Magdalena Fabiana Anas Alcázar de Freitas Delbosque. Someone had to imagine turning Fabiana into a sirena, and then somebody had to actually do it. And they did. Make no mistake: she’s a miracle of science. But successes in the biomedical field often present a morally slippery slope, which has everyone at the ready to sound off about implications and impact the second a new technique is mentioned. Opponents have usually referred to Fabiana as Sushi or Fish Girl (Corporation Creates Abomination) and proponents call her by her given name: Magdalena (Dive Guide for Celebrity Saved by Miraculous Medical Procedure!; Free Magdalena). It’s too soon to see the medical trickle-down effect from either the technology or the surgical procedures, but Fabiana is neither the procedure nor the technology.
I climb down the ladder on the side of the boat to sit on the platform. Here, with the water lapping at my ankles, is the agreed-on site for the interview and the dive briefing, wet suit snugged up to my waist, mask dangling around my neck. Fabiana rebuffs my hand and formal “Hello, Magdalena.” Instead, she kisses me on both cheeks. “Friend say me Fabiana,” she says. “Minha tia say me Magdalena.”
Fabiana is gracious enough to conduct the briefing and interview in English. Over the previous eighteen months, I had worked at resurrecting my Spanish conversational skills believing that a conversation with her in one of her primary languages would help me conduct a more authentic interview, but after my initial hello, she could tell that English would be easier for me, and she led me back to it.
In English, Fabiana speaks a pidgin common among the kind of professional dive masters who, I have since discovered, live like vagabonds from one six-month or yearly contract to the next as they skip like pebbles around the aqueous globe from dive shop to dive shop, offering lessons and tours in equatorially warm waters while collecting bits and pieces of local vernacular like magpies. Their communal language is a pastiche rooted in terms for air tank, weights, bottom time, boat, water, and descent. The expression of this vernacular is governed by whichever primary language dominates the current group of divers being briefed. A diver could go anywhere in the world and understand a briefing from a decent dive master, native language or not.
The promotional materials for Dive Sirena™ boast that Fabiana can conduct dive briefings in any major language, including Arabic and Chinese. When I ask about the claim, she quickly demonstrates the latter two and grins. It’s not hard to be impressed. “English more weak,” she says, falling back on pidgin. But I’ve worked with enough native speakers in Chinese and Arabic to understand that she has a level of accomplishment in both well beyond the magpie grabbing of analog terms for “air tank” and “water” and subsequent horse-shoeing of them into a rudimentary syntax.
Fabiana is fluent in Spanish and, thanks to a portion of her youth spent in Morocco, fluent to a lesser extent in French. She’s comfortably conversational in German and Russian. In Arabic, her ability to communicate is more basic, though well above pidgin. She claims she only “gets by” in Chinese. According to a few native Mandarin speakers whom she’s led on dives, she’s being modest. She can understand far more than she can speak.
Fabiana’s weakness in English is a result of her having worked almost exclusively in the Eastern Hemisphere when the extreme austerity of post-Brexit England (Pennies on the Pound: The Economicide of Brexit) kept the vast majority of Great Britain from taking holiday in places like Dive Sirena™’s Utopia! Grand Resort, the Seychelles, or the Solomons. Since her transformation into a sirena, she conducts dives everywhere in the world: a week at St. Maarten’s, a day or two at Cyprus, then off to the WWII wrecks at Chuuk Lagoon in Micronesia. It’s a rare Brit or Yank who can afford a day with Dive Sirena™, but most who have found the funds invariably know at least one of the other languages she speaks more fluently.
Throughout the afternoon, I discover that her pidgin English and diver’s pastiche are as much a part of who she is as any one language. She’s the intersection of them all.
When I point out to Fabiana that she has a natural tendency to revert to Portuguese every now and again, the corners of her eyes wrinkle and she laughs like someone who happily shares the cookies she just got caught filching from the cookie jar. Portuguese was the language she spoke with her aunt at home.
Concerning the controversies and haranguing back and forth among the media outlets on the topic of Dive Sirena™, Fabiana tells me, “Oh, I no mind. I dive.” She demonstrates a quick descent, in a flash off the platform we’re on for the pre-dive briefing and plunging down like a bullet. A moment or two and she’s returned to the surface, adjusting her swim top. She’s wearing it for the interview and pictures. It wasn’t made to be dived in.
Grabbing her tablet, she gets back to business. She adds, “They no want feet wet.” She smiles and I can see she really doesn’t let them get to her –– and by “them” she means all the tabloids (Sushi Flops!) from which she is carefully guarded, and the mainstream media which alternately skewer her for being pro-trans-human (Fish Girl Insult to Humanity) or hold her up as a bastion of feminism (‘My Body!’ says Magdalena). Take your pick. But you should know when it comes to coral, she’s especially fond of Diploria labyrinthiformis in the family Mussidae. To you non-scleractini-philes, that means brain coral. And she rattles off the scientific classification of anything I can point to under water like a teen rattling off BFF handles on social media.
Long before the accident, when she still had her legs, Fabiana’s aunt raised her single-handedly, both of them finding much needed work at Utopia! Grand Resort where Fabiana dived into a house-sized tank set inside the restaurant. A patron would point, she’d dive in, snap up the fish, and the guest would have sushi within sixty seconds. That’s what fellow staff and patrons called her, Sushi, in whichever language they used – French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, German. Those legally allowed to talk about her a decade later all say the same thing. She was a delight in every way.
Fabiana was lucky in two ways. First, she spent most of her childhood in the Canary Islands, close to the mega-resort under construction before she was born. Proximity made Los Canarios prime candidates for hire. Second, her birthday fell on the day before the official opening, and thus she was employable, but just barely. She was twelve. By fourteen when her breasts came in fully, she was moved to the exclusive restaurant at the other end of the island, diving for fish topless. She shrugs about it. “Is just parts,” she says. “Like tail.”
“But some things you just can’t do with your tail,” I point out and she erupts into laughter, bright red from waist to the tips of her ears. She has bent in half, and I can’t see her face. Her tail flips in spasms like a lobster defending itself as she laughs through her hands.
“Minha tia love you,” she says when she sits up, still a bit flushed. “I wish you say with her.” Her aunt died when Fabiana was seventeen. Her aunt cut herself restocking Utopia’s fish tanks and contracted a MRSA-resistant staph infection. (Mega-Resorts: New Sweat Shop Industry?)
Fabiana again adjusts her bandeau bikini top, cream-colored cups are covered with drips and dribbles of a Pollock painting, a throwback to the 1950s Riviera. Think the grandeur and romance of To Catch a Thief. The Voracious!.com photographer chosen to accompany me snaps many candid photos the Dive Sirena™ PR team will not allow him to keep.
“No good for dive,” she says. She eyes the garment like it is a hand-me-down she’s ready to toss aside. “But gift. Very sweet.” According to Chanel Couture, Max Heddested, the actor-director, commissioned the garment as a present after his first dive with her. He and Fabiana have dived a confirmed eight times over the space of two years, the last of which was just after shooting for Lunar 3 wrapped. (Heddested Interview – Lunar 3: All Fall Down) Just one day with her was the best of a much-needed break, he confessed to Fabiana, before he had to gear up for the first of the Mind Games Trilogy set to come out late next year.
It is possible the rumors about the two of them are true, but Fabiana gives nothing away. The only two things she mentions about Max have to do with the bikini top. “He say sea shells are for meninas,” she tells me matter-of-factly. When she sees my expression, she realizes she has slipped in a Portuguese word that I can’t quite parse with my rickety Spanish. “Little girl,” she translates.
There might be a hint of crimson around her cheeks from talking about Max, though it might also be lingering from my comment about what can and can’t be done with her tail. To be frank, Fabiana has never worn seashells to cover her breasts, though the meme Under the See! went viral within minutes of its release. And no one who has seen her could possibly mistake Fabiana for being a little girl. Both of us grimace at the meme without having to mention it out loud. We let the conversation move elsewhere.
For the pre-dive briefing, she switches between complicated diagrams of dive concepts for beginners and a dive map for our afternoon dip and discusses topics like “bottom time” and “partial pressure of oxygen.” She draws my attention back to the tablet with a touch to my elbow and asks “You see little current here? Is dangerous maybe?” I agree. However, I don’t actually know. Apart from my basic certification, I’ve never really been diving. Not in the ocean. I did my training in a swimming pool in Midtown Manhattan and my two certification dives in a quarry in Pennsylvania.
I allow these decisions to pass me by like buzzing mosquitoes, confident in the expertise of the first half-human, half-fish who will all too soon take me to the world below. She has so much experience, she doesn’t know how many dives she’s made. “I no more to count single dive after four hundred,” she says shyly, as if I am a school master ready to shame her for failing to show her work on a math test. “I marks knife handle for each ten.” She shrugs. “After eighty little mark, knife full, I stop.”
Though accounts vary wildly, Fabiana confirms that she was twenty-two when the procedure was done. I won’t aggravate you with the details given the ubiquity of links to it (Crispr Sushi: PanaceaCo Authorizes Girl + Fish Splice, Medical Miracle Saves Sirena™), but I will say she has a flair for public relations and for engaging and managing people. Her secret is her authenticity in that she still likes diving. Her crew calls her peixinha. Little fish. Most importantly, she remembers everyone’s name.
She talks about the procedure. “Men ask about top,” she laughs, “women ask about bottom, yes?” She shakes her head, and her long, dark hair escapes from behind an ear. It’s down for the candid photos. She lost her womb during the accident but is surprisingly adamant that her breasts are real.
In a later procedure, her eyes were altered so she can see both above water and below without a mask. However that procedure is so veiled with patents and corporate secrecy, she is allowed to say very little. “Not matter how, they work like they need to.” She’s right. What is the sense in worrying how it was done when she has so many other things that vie for her time?
She has allowed me more time than initially agreed on which ends up stretching our conversation well beyond our scheduled fifteen minutes. Now that our above water tête-à-tête is over, she pulls her hair into a tight bun fastened with a scrunchie tossed to her by an assistant. In one swift motion she’s pulled off the bandeau top and replaced it with a racer-back bikini crop-top. Fabiana is practical.
Toward the end of the dive, Fabiana hovers upside down in the water face to face with me, her body extending toward the surface while I hang with my fins pointing toward the reef. She is deliberately messing with my sense of up and down. Her fin languidly flexes to keep her from drifting as a few fly-aways of hair float around her like a dark-glorious halo. She removes her mouthpiece and blows bubbles that to me appear to fall past where her feet should be. She guffaws at her own buffoonery and quickly puts the breather back in her mouth.
After we surface, I understand I have only a few seconds before I am dismissed. From my bag I pull produce a child’s toy that looks vaguely like her and ask for an autograph. She asks who the autograph is for. I tell her my eight-year-old daughter’s name, confessing that she loves everything about Sirena™ because she wants to be a marine biologist. Fabiana pauses a moment before taking the doll.
“You filha,” she says, “she know this words? Biologia Marinha?” She still hasn’t looked up.
“Yes,” I say. Perhaps, just at the very corners, a smile might have touched Fabiana’s lips, but I do not know if it was rueful or mocking.
She hands the doll to one of her assistants and promises she’ll sign it later. Though she never lets on that it has bothered her, I feel I’ve crossed a line. I am shuffled away.
Later in the evening, a special courier arrives at my hotel with the plush mermaid. It’s signed, “To this journalist’s awesome daughter.” Initially, I take that as confirmation I had indeed offended my hostess. That is until I learned a little bit more about Sirena™ merchandise. Given the sheer volume of items available, nearly all are autographed by machine and therefore have no salutation, no “To Jennifer” or “To Carlos.” Personalization should make it more valuable, right? Half right. Only if it’s flat signed, meaning personalized but not with a name so the recipient can fantasize it’s to them.
And if she signs “Fabiana,” written broadly and underlined three times, then if your daughter doesn’t receive a scholarship, she can sell the toy and study Marine Biology anywhere in the world for as long as she wants.