In fourteen hundred and ninety-two

Columbus sailed the ocean blue

All his men were there to aid

But is it a manatee or a mermaid?

On January 9, 1493, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, sees three “mermaids”–in reality manatees–and describes them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Manatee and Mermaid

Six months earlier, Columbus (1451-1506) set off from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, hoping to find a western trade route to Asia. Instead, his voyage, the first of four he would make, led him to the Americas, or “New World.”


Mermaids, mythical half-female, half-fish creatures, have existed in seafaring cultures at least 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.

John William Waterhouse - Ulysses and the Sirens (1891)

John William Waterhouse – Ulysses and the Sirens (1891)

Mermaid sightings by sailors, when they weren’t made up, were most likely manatees, dugongs or Steller’s sea cows (which became extinct by the 1760s due to over-hunting).  Just in case you are a female sailor.

Source: Merman by Myriadelle

Source: Merman by Myriadelle

Manatees are slow-moving aquatic mammals with human-like eyes, bulbous faces and paddle-like tails. It is likely that manatees evolved from an ancestor they share with the elephant. The three species of manatee (West Indian, West African and Amazonian) and one species of dugong belong to the Sirenia order. As adults, they’re typically 10 to 12 feet long and weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. They’re 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 U.S., the majority of manatees are found in Florida, where scores of them die or are injured each year due to collisions with boats

The manatee is the Florida State marine mammal

The manatee is the Florida State marine mammal


5 responses

  1. I put a “Today in History” on my board everyday for my students, and you and I clearly have the same source . . . 🙂


  2. Reblogged this on If it happened yesterday, it's History and commented:
    Maryann Halloway presents this nice little gem mixed with fact and mythology about Mermaids and Manatees. Columbus I don’t blame you if you saw beautiful mermaids, like the ones featured in this post lol.


  3. Fiction comes in a distant second place to this sort of stuff….