Manatees are part of a group of animals called Sirenia. Although they do live in water, they are not fish. They are mammals. The name comes from siren, a word known from Greek mythology. Ancient seafarers told stories of beautiful girls , sirens, that lived in the sea and sang hypnotic songs that would put sailors in a trance. They actually believed that these stories were true. In ancient times, and even today, the oceans can be strange, dark and mysterious places. Even after years of exploration, there is a lot that we don’t know about the deep blue sea. The depth, the darkness and the real unknown is a bit scary to some people. Thousands, even hundreds of years ago, they couldn’t understand or explain the sea or the sky. Great stories were invented and told of mermaids, beautiful half-fish, half-female creatures who lived in the sea. They believed in these beautiful and enchanting mermaids.
On January 9, 1493, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, saw three mermaids and described them as "not half as beautiful as they are painted." He was commanding his fleet of ships, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, hoping to find a trade route to the Far East. Instead, he found the Americas. Looking down at a manatee, he saw the front half had a head and arms and back half had a tail like a fish. The only thing Columbus and his crew knew that was shaped like this was a mermaid. Today, we know that what they spotted were manatees. And there is very little about one that reminds me of a cute girl. Nothing in fact. But, hey, they’d been sailing for a long-g-g time. These huge, slow-moving mammals are friendly and quite lovable. You can swim with them and get close in some places nearby. They live in our warm shallow coastal waters, estuaries and rivers. They grow to roughly 10 to 12 feet long and weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. When you spot one, like a mother with a little one, they are a real sight. You have to smile. They can stay underwater for up to 24 minutes, and although they seem to move extremely slow, they can swim up to 15 mph. Manatees spend 6 to 8 hours each day feeding, but in the wild they only eat sea grass. They are vegans!! At Tampa’s award-winning Lowry Park Zoo, they have a manatee hospital. (Visit HERE) You can get very close and watch them through the glass in utter fascination. It’s like seeing a rhino or giant cow in the water swimming, gliding and spinning around in front of you. Kids can’t get enough of them and they even have a sleep-over where the boys and girls can so overnight and sleep beside their tank. There the manatees are fed tons of vegatables such as lettuce and cabbage. They can really eat. On average they live to be 50 to 60 years old and although they have no natural predators, they are a seriously endangered species. Many die from collisions with boats. They estimate that 40% of all manatee deaths are attributed to our boats, fishing equipment and other things manmade. (Visit Save the Manatee Club HERE.)
So, are mermaids real? Christopher Columbus certainly thought so even if the ones he saw weren’t the delightful females with fish tails in the paintings and in the stories he’d been told. Sailors do spend a long time out at sea and a sweet 1,000 lb manatee might start to look mighty attractive after so long a journey from home. Just don’t get too close sailor unless you’re ready for the wettest kiss ever from the winner of the ugliest girl contest. That’s a whopper of a tall tale to take home from your sea voyage. Just try to describe her to your buddies back home!