Mermaids have been part of myth and legend for centuries. And with as
much as 95% of the ocean still unexplored, it’s no wonder people ran with the idea of an underwater half person, half fish for so long.
Even Christopher Columbus thought he had spotted mermaids on his journey to North America. He was so excited about the encounter that he noted it in his travel journal, according to National Geographic:
“On the previous day [8 Jan 1493], when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro [Haiti], he said he quite distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.”
Unfortunately, mermaids are truly just a figment of the imagination. But the creature behind the myth is 100% real: It’s the manatee. (What Columbus actually observed was the first record of the animal in North America.)
While it’s impossible to confirm that manatees are responsible for every mermaid “sighting,” there’s reason to believe they’re the most likely culprit.
National Geographic describes manatees as being easily mistaken for humans from a distance due to their forelimbs, with five sets of fingerlike bones, and neck vertebrae that let them turn their heads. Manatees also have a flat tail, and their flipper may resemble stubby arms, helping them to resemble merpeople. This seems to be especially true when people spot them mostly submerged in water with only small parts of their bodies visible from a distance, noted Live Science.
Even though we have known for quite some time that mermaids are not real, they continue to inspire interest and sometimes controversy.
In 2009, people in the town of Kirvat Yam, Israel, claimed to have spotted a mermaid in the water, according to the NY Daily News. The town offered $1 million to anyone who could prove that the mermaid existed with photo evidence. As could have been guessed, no one ever captured this evidence, and the reward was taken off the table.
Then, in 2013, Animal Planet released a “documentary” called “Mermaids: The Body Found.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) got so many questions about it, the agency released a statement affirming that “no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.”
The animal behind the myth, however, shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, these usually peaceful creatures are threatened.
The decline of the world’s manatees can be traced back to a loss of natural habitat caused by global warming, as well as human incursions into their waters. Manatees are already listed as endangered and facing a high risk of extinction. Their populations are expected to decline by up to 20% over the next 40 years (that’s about two manatee generations).
So unless humans take real action to help save manatees, mermaid “sightings” and fantasies may begin to fade away — right along with the creatures that inspired the myth.
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