Columbus Saw Mermaids—Or Did He? – 1493
On this day more than 500 years ago, Christopher Columbus was sailing near what is today the Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean Sea. He reported that he saw three mermaids but complained that they were “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” He went on to say that “to some extent they have the form of a human face.”
Scholars have looked at his description of “mermaids” and determined that he had actually seen manatees. These marine mammals were sometimes mistaken for mythical mermaids, perhaps because sailors were prepped by exposure to countless drawings of mermaids and others' reported sightings – so, when they saw vaguely human-fish forms in the sea, probably at a distance and in dazzling sunlight-on-water conditions, they assumed they were seeing mermaids.
(These days, lights in the sky are often reported as alien spacecraft—mostly because many people have been prepped by so many others' UFO/alien reports that they assume that any light in the sky that doesn't seem to be a star or the moon must be an alien vehicle! In actual fact, there is no good evidence for any alien visitations...so far.)
Manatees and mermaids? I don't see the resemblance...
Most of the legends about mermaids and related mythical creatures, sirens, were probably wholly separate from manatees, their relatives the dugongs, or any other marine animal. Like other part-human-part-animal figures, such as centaurs and satyrs, they were creations of human imaginations.
When long-ago sailors mis-reported manatees or dugongs as mermaids, it may have been partly because certain moves manatees make in the shallow waters they enjoy may have resembled positions sailors had seen in mermaid illustrations, which decorated even their maps. Some of these illustrations and ancient stories depict mermaids as ugly—although they were usually described as beautiful—and as voluptuous or fleshy women, not slender women. Also, certain parts of the manatee look more human that others. I found one website that claimed that manatees have human-like eyes, and another points out that the word manatee comes from a Caribbean native word for “breast.” I have read in the past that manatee mothers hold their babies in a human-like way, but I was unable to confirm that with current resources.
The scientific name for the group of mammals that includes manatees and dugongs is “Sirenia,” which refers to the mermaids of Greek myths—another clear indication of the close relation we perceive between manatees (real) and mermaids (myth).
Learn about manatees.