Christopher Columbus Mistook Manatees for Mermaids

In fourteen hundred and ninety-three, not long after falling over what would become known as the Caribbean while sailing in the blue sea, the famous Italian explorer Christopher Columbus saw three “mermaids” floating in the water near it, there is now the Dominican Republic. In his log, it is said to have remarked: “Yesterday, when I was going to Rio del Oro, I saw three sirens coming very high up from the sea. They were not as beautiful as they are painted, as they in some ways have a face like a man. ”

It’s because they were neither mermaid nor man. More than likely, Columbus encountered manatees, the thousand-pound underwater heifers that sprouted whiskers.

On this year’s Indigenous People’s Day – a federal holiday commemorates the same day as Columbus Day – let’s not forget it beyond Columbus’ ruthless violence against Taino humans and other Indians, he was also catfished by Rubenian sea cows.

You may be wondering: How could anyone possibly be mistaken for a large, slow-moving marine mammal for a semi-human mythical creature? According to Anthony Piccolo, a professor of literature at Manhattanville College in New York, some sailors were then so hungry for sex that something distantly curved aroused their interest.

“Deprivation of intimacy ignited all these journeys,” Piccolo said author Kathy Copeland Padden earlier this year. “Everything in the Water became a projection of the sailors’ need for contact.”

Columbus was not the first sailor to covet manatees. Throughout history, a number of sailors thought they saw mermaids when in fact they saw manatees or dugong (a close cousin), according to the nonprofit group Save the Manatee.

“With a little imagination, manatees have an eerie resemblance to human form that could only rise after long months at sea,” the group says in a educational booklet. “In fact, manatees and dugongs have helped perpetuate the myth of mermaids.”

Folklore and ancient maps of the known world were filled with mermaids and other mythical creatures, potentially priming sailor faith that the manatees they saw were mermaids.

I 1614, The British explorer John Smith (of Pocahonta’s fame) claimed to have seen a mermaid in the Caribbean and wrote in his log that he had “beginning to experience the first effects of love” when the creature turned.

“Her long green hair gave her an original character in no way uninteresting,” Smith wrote in his log.

Although mermaids can be a rare sight, so are manatees: they are currently dying on record tempodue to grazing of seagrass in waterways and lagoons. In July, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) reported nearly 900 deaths from manatees so far in 2021 – the largest death toll ever recorded in a single year.

In a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week, Florida Agriculture Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried asked the federal government to re-list “threatened” manatees after the species was listed as “endangered” in March 2017.


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