By Dr. Ruscena Wiederholt, Quantitative Ecologist
“If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song.”
-Homer, the Odyssey
Mermaid myths were so prominent in the past that the actual beings occasionally materialized from the foamy depths of their aquatic homes. For instance, in 1493, Christopher Columbus described them in the Caribbean as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” In the early 1600s, John Smith (the purported love interest of Pocahontas) claimed to have seen a graceful one swimming in the West Indies. It’s likely they did see something with a fish-like tail, but much less provocative than the fairy tales would suggest: manatees. In the sunshine state, we have our very own mermaid-like creature: the Florida manatee. A subspecies of West Indian manatees, their taxonomic order is aptly named Sirenia. Enjoy our lighthearted take on how the real beast differs from the fable.
Manatees are just a little bit bigger
It’s hard to imagine confusing a manatee with a woman but then again, I’ve never been at sea for months on end without fresh food or basic comforts. To give these sailors credit, manatees do have large, spatula-shaped tails but that’s where the likeness to the willowy mermaid ends. Portly and wrinkle-faced, manatees can be 10 feet long and weigh from 800 to 1200 pounds. Even their babies are huge, weighing up to 70 pounds at birth. Sparse hairs, which improve their sense of touch, cover their body along with barnacles and patches of algae. Despite these hefty differences, mermaid sightings are not a thing of the past. As recently as 2009, so many mermaid sightings were reported in a coastal Israeli town that the city council offered a reward of $1 million for the first successful mermaid photograph.
Manatees have a more limited range than mermaids
For starters, the three species of manatees are found in coastal and riverine areas in the Americas and western Africa. The dugong, a closely related species, ranges from the western Pacific Ocean to the east coast of Africa. The Florida manatee spends their winters here in Florida to keep warm, but can move as far away as Texas or Massachusetts when nearshore waters heat up in summer. In contrast, mermaids have seeped into cultures across the globe, with stories of fiendish aquatic humanoids emerging from both inland and seaside locations. Similarly, manatees, with their versatile habitat preferences, are found in marine, estuarine, and freshwater ecosystems.
Mermaids have a much nastier disposition
Mermaid folklore runs the gamut from cold-blooded murderers and capricious goddesses to munificent gift bearers and marriage material. Manatees, on the other hand, are always gentle, docile, and unhurried creatures. It’s believed they don’t have any natural predators besides humans, which might explain their peaceful nature. Not portents of doom for any creature, manatees are actually vegetarian. Nicknamed sea cows, they eat seagrass and other aquatic plants, and lots of it, up to 100 pounds daily. Much like mermaids, manatees have a captivating and magnetic presence, and both tourists and residents flock to see them across our state.
Manatee populations are recovering while mermaid populations appear to be stable
Manatees have had a more tumultuous, though less sensational, past than mermaids. West Indian manatees were first listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1967, when only a few hundred remained in the wild. Hunting had reduced their population size significantly; fortunately, this is now banned in the U.S. and many other countries. Today, collisions with boats are one of the leading causes of mortality. Habitat loss from coastal development, water diversions, pollution, diseases, natural disasters, and red tide also threaten their populations. For instance, the toxic red tides off of Florida’s gulf coast in 2013 and 2018 resulted in several hundred manatee deaths. Despite these threats, manatee populations in Florida have increased over the past 25 years from less than 1,300 to over 8,800 individuals today. Because of their recovery, in 2017, manatees were down-listed from endangered to threatened.
Their legendary counterparts, on the other hand, have been widely popular since ancient times. Mermaid iconography and tales are alive and well today, adorning countless seaside shops, luring you to a ubiquitous cafe, and materializing in numerous films. Surprisingly, a token of belief has managed to survive all these centuries. In 2013, Animal Planet somewhat incongruously launched a special on mermaids. Afterwards, so many people called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) asking if merfolk were real that their website now has its very own mermaid page. It reminds everyone that there is no scientific evidence for aquatic humanoids, or for that matter, minotaurs, centaurs, or satyrs. Good thing we have manatees to enchant us instead.
Manatee coming up for air in Florida Bay. Note the barnacle on its neck.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has an extensive list of places to see manatees:
Tips for safe manatee viewing:
· Never touch a manatee, feed them or give them water, since this may cause them to lose their fear of humans and boats.
· Never poke or prod a manatee with your hands, feet or an object.
· Don’t chase a manatee if you see one while you are swimming, snorkeling, diving, paddling or operating a boat.
· Give manatees space to move and don’t isolate or single out an individual manatee from its group, especially mothers and their calves.
· Avoid excessive noise and splashing if a manatee appears nearby.
Tips for boating safely with manatees:
· Have someone on your boat look out for manatees.
· Give manatees plenty of room—a single animal will be likely to be traveling with other manatees that you may not see.
· Look for “manatee footprints” or circular wave patterns left on the surface of the water by the manatee’s tail as it swims underwater.
· Try not to pass directly over manatees.
· Manatees with calves or in mating herds may not evade approaching boats. Cold weather and red tide may also cause manatees to move more slowly.
· Several boats moving at the same time can confuse manatees. They may swim into the path of a boat while trying to avoid another one.