I’ll bet that you’ve heard of mermaids. These half-fish, half-human creatures have persisted in human mythology for centuries. I doubt that we’ll ever really know where the notion of such an unlikely creature as a mermaid first originated, but it is known that the crews of old-time sailing ships spoke of mermaids and that many of them believed that mermaids actually existed.
These guys were on sea voyages which lasted weeks, months or even years at a time and they had no way to FaceTime chat with wives or girlfriends. And since vessel crews in those days did not include women, the guys might not see a female human for a very long time. They didn’t have pinup posters, postcards from home, or any interaction with anybody other than a boatload of stinky, dirty guys who weren’t spending much time bathing, shaving or doing much of any other kind of grooming.
So the unlikely fantasy that a beautiful fish-tailed female could swim up alongside the boat, coyly smile at the crew and maybe blow them a kiss might easily become a reality in the minds of these lonely guys. I can imagine the guys swinging in their crowded hammocks at night in the dark, humid, creaking depths of their ship talking about it. Sooner or later, someone might claim to have actually seen one of the creatures.
The exciting, monotony-breaking tale could sweep through the crew, getting embellished a bit on each re-telling, until it became an absolute certainty that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty wearing a pearl necklace had come right alongside, propped her arms on the gunwale and said hello.
Maybe yon’t think that such a scenario is very likely — that such an unlikely tale could never be repeated enough that it became accepted as fact. And yet, similar stuff happens every day in our modern world on TV, radio and social media.
If this is indeed how mermaids came to exist, then it would probably explain why mermaids are always female. What would a male mermaid even be called? A male ladyfish is still a ladyfish, so would a male mermaid still be a mermaid? Would this confuse those old time sailors? Would they even care after months at sea? Or would a male mermaid be called a merman? If it’s maids and masters, would it be a mermaster? Merguy? Merdude? Is this discussion politically incorrect enough to get me in trouble?
But back to the point: It’s said of the earliest European explorers who came to Florida in the 1500s (guys like Ponce de Leon and Hernando De Soto) that when their crew members caught their first glimpses of manatees that the animals were sometimes at first mistaken for mermaids.
Now I gotta tell you, I have looked at plenty of manatees. While they are sort of cute in a homely kind of way — sort of the way a bulldog is cute — as far as I can see, there is nothing remotely mermaid-like about a pudgy, bewhiskered, large-snouted, and enormously flatulent manatee. And I truly don’t think I could ever be at sea long enough to think otherwise, but that’s just me.
Would you like to see and judge for yourself? This time of year is usually about the peak of the manatee viewing season at Lee County’s Manatee Park in Fort Myers. During the winter, dozens and dozens of these protected mammals crowd into a narrow canal where warm water is discharged from the FPL power plant on the Orange River.
Manatees don’t do well in cold water, and Florida is just on the northernmost edge of their range. They can die during our harshest winter cold snaps, so when winter is at it’s worst they take refuge where warm water is assured. Many years ago, that was flowing springs — but since most of them no longer flow, manatees rely on power plant discharges and other artificial sources of warm water.
At Manatee Park, there is a viewing boardwalk alongside the canal where — under the right conditions — visitors can see more manatees than they are likely to ever encounter anywhere else in Southwest Florida. Most of the time, all that can be seen is the tip of a manatee snout when the animal raises its head to take a breath of air. But sometimes one will lift its entire head up for a look around, raise its tail for a dive, or swim near enough to the boardwalk for viewers to look down and see much of the animal in the dark water.
The Manatee Park a good place to go when the weather is cold and blustery and you can’t do much else anyway. In fact, that’s usually the best time to see the manatees there. The colder the surrounding waters, the more manatees will crowd into the canal. But there is virtually nothing for them to eat there, so as soon as the water warms up they usually leave the canal and spread out into the Orange River and down to the Caloosahatchee in search of whatever greenery they can scrounge nearby. They’ll then scurry back into the canal when cold weather returns.
To learn more about the Manatee Park, go to http://bit.ly/2Fb4MYy. Then wait for it to get cold, go to the park and see if you can spot a mermaid.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Call him at 941-639-2628 or email Captain@KingFishFleet.com.