When I was assigned to go interview the Belarusian mermaid that performs in the shark tank every weekend at the Chiang Mai Zoo Aquarium, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
What I found was a seemingly normal family, parents with two young children living in an upscale moo baan near Mae Hia. The spacious living room was strewn with toys, Jimmy Buffett memorabilia and a floppy grey bunny named Fluffy who hopped about like he owned the place, occasionally being scooped up for a snuggle.
In fact, neither Nika (the mermaid) nor her husband Jay Strifler have spent a day in their lives sitting in an office or staring at a computer. Jay dived for Canada in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, and spent 15 years working as a stuntman for various TV shows and movies in Hollywood, including Miami Vice, Back to School and Moonlighting. After getting his fill of the Hollywood scene, he moved to China where he performed in a high dive show for a while, before being asked by the entertainment director if he wanted to become the show's producer.
"I'd never produced in my life, but the guy told me, 'if you take this over I'll teach you how to do it,' so I figured I'd give it a shot," said Jay. "I had no idea what I was doing so the first two or three years were rough, but eventually I got the hang of it."
In fact, Jay had found his new calling. His next stop was Taiwan, where he got a job in a stunt show at a huge marine theme park called Ocean World. The show was thoroughly absurd, featuring a whole group of people performing death-defying stunts and acrobatics in and around the water to a soundtrack of Kenny Loggins' 'Danger Zone'. Jay showed me an old video of him lighting himself on fire and jumping off a 30-metre high dive, engulfed in flames. In the pool below, beautiful water ballerinas kicked their powerful legs in a mesmerising, synchronised dance. One of those beauties was Nika. It was then that Jay realised he'd met his match.
Nika, an impossibly toned former World Cup synchronised swimmer from Belarus, spent her early years travelling the world, competing and performing all over Europe and Asia before coming to Ocean World in Taipei, where she fell in love with the smouldering (literally) high diver from Canada.
The couple soon got married, had a baby and moved to Phuket, where they had another baby.
"Taiwan was fun, but not exactly the greatest place to live," said Jay. "So in 2005 I said, hey, let's go to Thailand!"
Eventually, they decided to move from Phuket to Chiang Mai when they discovered that the aquarium there lacked a show like Nika's, and was more than happy to employ her. Today, Nika, whose kids call her 'Mommy Mermaid', performs her completely self-designed shows at the Chiang Mai Zoo Aquarium every Saturday and Sunday. Inside the saltwater tank, dressed in a shimmering costume, Nika and her partner, another Belarusian athlete named Nadia, swoop and swirl amidst the fishes, and yes, the sharks. "But actually," she says, "they're leopard sharks and they have no teeth, so they usually stay out of my way. The real struggle is trying not to kick the fish!"
Meanwhile, Jay runs the Taiwanese show from Chiang Mai, travelling back to Taipei just twice a year for three weeks at a time to check in on things. Other than that, he's a stay-at-home dad, but he's got ideas in the works.
"My show in Taiwan draws in two million people a year. And it's awesome _ Hollywood-style stunts with high diving, fire diving, trampolines, jet skis. People don't realise, in tourist capitals like Thailand these things can be huge money-makers. I know shows all over the world that make millions every year. So now my dream is to start one in Chiang Mai," he told me. "Chiang Mai needs a gritty, groovy, kick-ass stunt show."
But for now, life is good, and the Strifler family's aquamarine dreams float on.
Shows are Saturday and Sunday at 10.45 a.m. and 2.45 p.m. at Chiang Mai Zoo Aquarium. www.chiangmaiaquarium.com
053 893 111