In 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue and lookouts were aloft to search uncharted waters, creatures began to appear that could only have roots in mythology, superstition, and embellishing beliefs that stemmed from ancient mariners as they explored distant shores.
After Columbus sighted land and discovered the new world, he reported three mermaids were sighted on Jan. 4, 1493. “Mermaids rose high out of the sea,” he recorded, “But were not as beautiful as they are represented.”
On June 15, 1608, English captain and navigator Henry Hudson was searching the Arctic Circle for a new route to Asia when he wrote the following entry in his ship’s log.
“This morning, one of our companie looking overboard saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the companie to see her, one more came up, and by that time she was close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly upon the men: a little after, a Sea came and overturned her: From the Navill upward, her backe and breasts were like a woman’s... her body as big as one of us; her skin very white; and long haire hanging down behinde, of colour blacke; in her going down they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a Porposse, and speckled like a Macrell.”
During the 1860s Victorian biologist P.H. Grosse proclaimed that with all the experience of Henry Hudson and his veteran crews, there could be no mistaking a walrus or seal for a mermaid and therefore announced there very well might be a previously undiscovered and new zoological species.
In the new millennium, and in the present day, we of course believe that mermaids are fictitious creatures of salty and fertile imaginations... or are they?
When Juan Ponce de Leon discovered the Dry Tortugas in 1513 and later cruised northward into the Ten Thousand Islands and discovered Marco and the Calusa Indians, could he and his crew have sighted a manatee on a moonlit night and believed they saw a mermaid?
With the warm and shallow waters between Fort Myers and Key West a perfect home for manatees, can there be any wonder that the mermen and mermaids of yesteryear might have been reported in our own coastal backyard?
Even today, manatees are linked to the legend of mermaids with the official animal-order name of Sirenia. The song of the siren has been recorded throughout history and even reaches into the heartland of Germany. Near Coblenz where the Rhine river flows through vineyard-covered mountains and castles guard every bend in the watercourse, the Lorelei rock awaits where a centuries-old legend tells the tale of an enchantress who sings a song so sweet she lures river sailors into destruction at the base of the well-known cliffs.
Mentally armed with the folklore and fables of old Europe, the storm-seasoned sailors arriving in the new world were instantly ready to explain away any phenomenon that might have made an appearance. Manatees sighted in daylight hours were repeatedly regarded as mermen; they were muddy, heavy creatures with bristles and whiskers, and a face that only a mother could love. With a moonlit night however, and a lonely sailor on anchor watch, the Florida manatee might have come calling, and left an impression, a story, and a legend of a beautiful mermaid that came out only after nightfall and only during a full moon.
Webster’s dictionary defines the siren as one of three sea nymphs, said to frequent an island near the coast of Italy and to sing with such a sweetness that lured mariners to destruction.
One of the most compelling and unforgettable accounts of mermaid legacy comes from an old story originating in the Outer Hebrides on the island of Benbecula. In 1870, after a severe ocean storm, seaweed cutters on the shore were attracted to a splashing in the nearby waters and found a small mermaid playing in the surf. Several townsfolk tried to capture her but she swam too fast to be ensnared in a net. Just before she submerged for the final time, the town bully threw a rock and hit her on the back of the head. The following day her body washed up and upon close inspection, everyone agreed this was a true mermaid. She had the body of a child with well-developed breasts but below the waist she had scales and a tail like a fish. By order of the town officials she was given a Christian burial as she was considered too human not to.
As sailors have forever been attracted to anomalies in the water, and as any unusual and exotic creatures are always alluring, there can be little doubt that the shallow water habits of our own Florida manatees could tempt mariners onto treacherous sandbars and coral reefs. Whenever the old mariners ran aground and found destruction in a storm, can the mermaids of old have been held to blame?
On almost any occasion, children will ask the most direct and amazing questions, and on rare occasions, parents will have equally incredible answers.
“Are mermaids real?” Five-year-old Mia from England recently asked on a sailing excursion in the Marco River.
“They’re as real as you want them to be,” her mother replied with a soft London accent.
“But mommy, I want them to be real,” Mia insisted.
“The next time we stroll on the beach,” Mommy suggested, “We’ll look for their toenails. Mermaids’ toenails can sometimes be found at the water’s edge.”
“But that’s silly mommy,” Mia was not to be hoodwinked. “Mermaids don’t have toenails. They don’t have feet. They only have a tail like a fish.”
“Oh, but that’s what’s special,” Mommy smiled knowingly. “Mermaids don’t start out as mermaids they start out as little girls, but only little girls that have pink toenail varnish.”
“But mommy,” Mia protested, “I have pink toenail varnish! Can I turn into a mermaid?”
“That can only happen, when little girls with pink toenails stay in the water too long and love the sea too much. When that happens their feet and legs turn into a fish tail and their pink toenails come off and wash up on the beach.”
“Look,” Mommy insisted as she opened her purse, “I found one this morning!”
“Is that really a mermaid toenail?” Mia asked in awe as she gazed at the bright pink seashell in her mother’s hand.
“It is if you want it to be, besides, where would mermaids live if not around Marco Island?”