How Manatees Became Mermaids

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It’s winter again and manatees are migrating south to warm-water springs and power plant outflows. As the slow-moving marine mammals make their way into the springs they often run into trouble when they encounter humans and their watercraft. Each year many manatees are killed in collisions with boats. November is Manatee Awareness Month, with a focus on manatee protection policies and conservation efforts over the past few decades to help save these valuable, distinctive and beloved resources of the state. You can play your part by carrying the spirit of protecting these gentle mammals into the coming months and years.

Manatees as sirenians

Manatees have existed for about 24 million years. They have evolved and adapted to their surroundings and learned to interact with other animals. But it is their encounter with humans that has fueled one of the most fantastic fables in human cultures — the mermaid mythology. In fact, Florida manatees are one of the 4 living species classified in the vertebrate order called Sirenia, a word that originates from the Greek word for sirens, the mythical part-human mistresses that lured ships onto the rocks and pulled sailors to their deaths with their mesmerizing songs and looks. With about 95 percent of the ocean yet to be explored and still associated with all sorts of creatures, serpents, monsters, krakens and other fantastic creatures, the existence of manatees in aquatic ecosystems has somehow validated the tales of underwater half-human, half-fish creatures called mermaids.

Evolution of the mermaid mythology?

One of the creatures most frequently found in the stories of sea adventures is the mermaid. While the mermaid mythology is varied, taking many different origins, appearances and personalities, the first recorded half-human, half-fish creature is the Oannes, a 4th century BCE Babylonian god who would leave the sea during the day and return at night. In Homer’s Odyssey of ancient Greece, sailors were enticed to their deaths by the sirens, which were originally portrayed as having bird bodies, but most commonly as fish-tailed mermaids, making the word “siren” and its variations to mean mermaid in several languages. Even though the sirens were initially depicted as vicious personalities, similar to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan mermaids, other mermaid versions are kind, like “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, made popular by Disney’s 1989 film that restated the same story.

Over the years, the mermaid mythology saturated the world to the extent that people thought they were real creatures. In 1492, Christopher Columbus encountered lumbering creatures in the sea in North America and reported they were mermaids. In truth, he had only encountered manatees — mistaking the slow-moving, blubbery sea cows with the gorgeous, fish-tailed maidens he had heard in mermaid stories. Even today, people still report false mermaid sightings. For instance, a fake special mermaid documentary that aired in 2013 on Animal Planet resulted in a flurry of calls at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration as people called to seek the truth about mermaids. Of course the fact is mermaids are entirely fictional.

Why are manatees often associated with mermaids?

Manatees rise out of the water like the alluring sirens of the Greek mythology, sometimes even performing “tail stands” when in shallow water. Observed from a distance, manatees are easily mistaken for humans and hence mermaids because of their neck vertebrae which enable them to turn their heads in a manner similar to humans. Their forelimbs have 5 sets of fingerlike bones which, when submerged in water, appear more like human forelimbs. They also have flat tails and their flippers often resemble stubby arms when they are immersed in water from a distance where only small parts of their bodies can be seen. Manatees are also large, lumbering creatures that swim to and below the water surface, which makes them among the closest creatures to the mermaids found in many seafaring tales.

Need to protect manatees

The problem with the mermaid mythology is that as our affection and attention remain fixated on mermaids, we have left their real-life doubles struggling and endangered in the sea. Due to their large size and mostly slow pace, which renders them vulnerable to collisions with motorboats and entanglement in fishing nets, manatees are often injured or killed in avoidable circumstances. Manatees also are threatened by blooms of poisonous algae that grow rapidly in the summer, particularly in areas with nutrient pollution due to fertilizer runoffs. The red tide algae blooms produce a toxin that contaminates manatee habitats and stick to sea grass, causing manatee illness or even death. Also due to continued human encroachment and loss of warm-water refuges, the animals are increasingly becoming susceptible to unusually cold water and many of them die in the winter.

The biggest threat to manatees comes from human activities in their habitat. Large numbers of manatees have lost their flippers and other body parts due to collisions with boats and boat propellers. Since manatees don’t have natural predators, they have developed a lack of fear for almost everything, including powerboats. This has made their collisions with watercraft far too common. So even though manatees can live for 50-60 years in the wild, the rate of accidental death in Florida well exceeds their birth rate. In fact, it’s projected that manatee populations will decline by up to 20 percent over the next 40 years— roughly two manatee generations. That means unless real action is taken to save them, the mermaid “sightings” and fantasies will not only fade away, but will vanish with the creatures that inspired the myth. Such deliberate protective actions should include reducing fertilizer runoffs, creating passageways for the animals to migrate quickly to warm water areas and strict adherence to speed limits when in manatee habitats.

Captain Mike’s manatee-friendly tours

At Captain Mike’s, we are cognizant of the fact that we may soon lose manatees and see the source of the mermaid myth vanish from Florida. That’s why we have tailored our manatee tours to avoid either harm or disturbance to these adorable creatures. So at a time like now, when it’s winter in Florida and they are migrating into warmer springs, we ensure that tourists are properly guided through manatee sites and interact with them in a friendly and respectful manner, without disrupting their normal lives or their habitat. We are also confident that every person who comes with us on tour will more readily appreciate the need to protect these gentle creatures. For more information on manatees, manatee tours and a guide to the various activities you can enjoy during your vacation in Crystal River, visit the “Captain Mike’s Swimming With The Manatees” site.

Swimming with the Manatees boasts the best water adventure in Crystal River, Florida with lots of things to do for you and your family. For more information, contact us online, or call us at (352) 571-1888.

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