Hallucinations are not an uncommon phenomenon after long periods of time at sea, but on January 9, 1493, explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, saw something in the water that was not a hallucination, rather just something he had never seen before. Columbus knew the sea. He was a sailor, but this was not something he had seen before, and he had no knowledge of such a creature to draw from.

Well, it seems like if we don’t have any idea of what something is, we tend to draw from fiction. That was what Colombus did when he mistakenly thought these creatures in the water were three mermaids. Well, of course, they weren’t mermaids, but manatees. Columbus was so sure of what he saw that he even described them in his journals as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” Well, if you have seen a manatee, you will agree that they really aren’t what we would call “beautiful.”

Columbus had been at sea for six months, setting sail from Spain, heading across the Atlantic Ocean with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, hoping to find a western trade route to Asia. Of course, we now know that his voyage, the first of four he would make, led him to the Americas, or “New World.” Maybe, it was his long months at sea that caused him to imagine mermaids. Or maybe seeing only water for so long and so far, made the manatees look different to him than they really did, although, he did not imagine them to be beautiful.

Mermaids are, of course, mythical half-female, half-fish creatures, that have graced the imaginations of seafaring cultures since the time of the ancient Greeks. “Typically depicted as having a woman’s head and torso, a fishtail instead of legs and holding a mirror and comb, mermaids live in the ocean and, according to some legends, can take on a human shape and marry mortal men. Mermaids are closely linked to sirens, another folkloric figure, part-woman, part-bird, who live on islands and sing seductive songs to lure sailors to their deaths.”

Those Mermaid sightings by sailors were most likely manatees, dugongs, or Steller’s sea cows…which became extinct by the 1760s due to over-hunting. Manatees are slow-moving aquatic mammals with human-like eyes, bulbous faces and paddle-like tails. There are three different species of manatee…West Indian, West African and Amazonian, and one species of dugong which belong to the Sirenia order. As adults, Manatee are typically 10 to 12 feet long and weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds…not exactly the sleek lines most people would associate with the feminine beauty of the mermaid. Manatees are plant-eaters, have a slow metabolism, and can only survive in warm water. Manatees live an average of 50 to 60 years in the wild and have no natural predators. However, they are an endangered species. In the United States, the majority of manatees are found in Florida, where scores of them die or are injured each year due to collisions with boats.

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