By Alex Scott
There are around 130 marine mammal species in the earth’s oceans today, from seals to otters to whales to polar bears. Human civilizations have deified, hunted, and protected these sea creatures for thousands of years, but none has quite captivated humans like the manatee and its cousin species, the dugong. Although these animals are found in the Caribbean, South Pacific, and along the West African coast, all human civilizations have independently developed the same myth around them: a half-woman half-fish, known to us as the mermaid.
Since their discovery by humans, the manatee has become inextricably linked to the myth of mermaids. The word “dugong” itself means “lady of the sea” in Malay, a language spoken in Southeast Asia, and the word “manatee” may have roots in the Native Caribbean language of the Taíno people and mean “breast,” perhaps as a reference to a human woman. Manatees and dugongs comprise entirely the order of mammals known as Sirenia, a reference to the mythical sirens that resembled women and lured sailors into the ocean to be drowned. West African and Palauan peoples are just some of the cultures that tell stories of manatees and dugongs as humans that were transformed into animals. And Christopher Columbus himself wrote in his journal in 1493 of an admiral who saw three mermaids (though they apparently were “not so beautiful as they are painted”).
So what is it about the manatee that reminds us so much of mermaids? Firstly, sirenians are mostly slow-moving creatures that tend to live near coastlines, meaning humans are much more likely to see them in the first place. They are also very curious by nature and, because they have no natural predators, will often approach boats to take a look. Their flippers are made up of five digits which are quite visible on the outside, and their eyes are wide and expressive, further adding to their humanlike appearance.
Unfortunately, our fascination with manatees and dugongs has not stopped us from putting their species at risk of extinction. It is common for a manatee to approach a boat out of curiosity and run into the propellers instead or to become entangled in fishing nets and not be able to escape. And although native peoples around the world used to hunt them sustainably for their meat and hide, they are now the victims of poaching and harassment by tourists.
Despite these troubling risks, the animals are not yet endangered and are currently classified as “vulnerable.” This is partly thanks to local governments in Florida and Brazil, among others, that have introduced legislation to protect them from humans. As a result, their numbers have increased over the past 50 years, and with new laws and new understanding we can continue to enjoy these real-life mythical creatures.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2020 issue.
It is illegal to feed or harass wild marine mammals including dolphins, porpoises, whales, seals, sea lions, and manatees in the U.S. For the health and well-being of these animals and for your safety, please observe them from a distance of at least 50 yards.