Mermaids: Aquatic Facts About the Sirens of the Sea

The recent news from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that mermaids are, in fact, a myth resulted in a flurry of media coverage and everything from mockery of the government to broken-hearted little girls who still believe in mermaids, the Easter Bunny, Bigfoot and Santa. Since I am currently working on a book about mermaids, the news piqued my interest and I thought I'd share some of my own aquatic research.

Mermaids have dozens of names and relatives: Rusalkos in Russia and the Ukraine, Merrow in Ireland and Scotland, Mami Watu in West and Central Africa. Creatures such as nymphs, sirens and dryads are often used interchangeably with mermaids. Selkies are closely associated, as they are seals that can shed their skin and briefly walk upon dry land as beautiful women. Here are a few more fascinating facts about the sirens of the sea:

  • Many people believe today that early explorer sightings of mermaids were manatees. (Scurvy + many days away from your lady =a blubbery creature looking supple and bodacious.) The scientific name for manatees harkens to these early beliefs: it belongs to the order Sirenian (Family Trichechidae, genus Trichechus)

  • Blackbeard, the fierce and terrible pirate, was afraid of his crew being lured into a watery grave by mermaids so he ordered his ships to avoid certain areas reputed to have a high number of mermaid sightings.
  • The city of Warsaw in Poland has a mermaid on its official city seal.
  • The term Lorelei, a synonym for mermaid or siren, was the name of one of the "Rhine daughters" in Wagner's opera Der Ring des Nibelungen.
  • The town of Kiryat Yam in Israel offers a prize of $1 million to anyone who can prove the mermaid off their coast is real. The contest was started in 2009 after dozens of sightings of a mermaid leaping from the water! Apparently, the prize still remains unclaimed.
  • Today mermaids are as popular as they ever were. Hundreds of fun waterside festivals take place across the country. Every year, Coney Island hosts a Mermaid Parade. This annual tradition began in 1983, and for the past several years has included a Mermaid Ball after-party for participants and parade-goers. For more than fifty years, the Webster Lions Club in Rochester, New York has played host to the yearly Mermaid Festival. And in 2011 the first annual Mer-Con took place at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, complete with mermaid performers, vendors (selling waterproof mermaid tails, adult and child sizes available) and a World Mermaid Awards.

    And lest you think these siren-obsessed are all costumed comics, you should read about the real-life mermaid, Hannah Fraser. A mermaid-performer by trade, this aquatic Australian is far more than a pretty piece of tail: she works tirelessly as an eco-activist fighting to keep her beloved oceans clean and save her companion creatures of the deep.

    Have you had a mermaid sighting? Some believe they are as real as fairies, or saints, or ghosts.

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