Almost every sailor has a tale to tell about strange beasts he has seen in the waters of the sea, and some have told of mermaids, creatures which are half human and half fish. Fairy stories have grown out of these tales, including the most famous of all, The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen.
But are there really such things as mermaids? Obviously, the sailors saw something which began these stories, but was it really just as they said? Mermaids are supposed to be very beautiful sea creatures. They sit on rocks or float on the surface of the water, singing lovely and haunting songs while they comb their long hair. They have a sinister side to them as well; they are supposed to lure men down to live with them at the bottom of the sea. Of course, these poor men drown.
Nobody has ever caught a mermaid, although rewards have been offered for the first live mermaid to be caught. But the real mermaid may have been something not nearly as beautiful or as mysterious as the stories tell us.
In tropical waters there are strange creatures called manatees or dugongs, animals which look live very fat seals. They suckle their young on the surface of the water, and sightings of them from a distance may have been the origins of the stories about mermaids. They are not beautiful animals, but to sailors who had seen nothing but the sea, perhaps for months at a time, they appeared as something rather different from what they actually were. And the mermaid’s songs? Well, have you ever heard recordings of whales ‘singing’ in the sea, calling to one another? It’s a very strange and haunting sound, and may be the original mermaids’ music. We cannot know for sure, but it seems a very likely explanation.