Native History: Manatees or Mermaids, Columbus Has No Idea

“Mermaid Compared with the Manatee at the Zoological Gardens London”

Indian Country Today

Native History: Manatees or Mermaids, Columbus Has No Idea

This Date in Native History: On January 9, 1493, Christopher Columbus—having set sail from Spain six months earlier—spots three “mermaids” while sailing near the Dominican Republic.

“The day before, when the Admiral was going to the Rio del Oro, he said he saw three mermaids who came quite high out of the water but were not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men. He said that he saw some in Guinea on the coast of Manegueta,” from the Diary of Christopher Columbus.

Stories of the mythical half-female, half-fish creatures have circulated in seafaring cultures since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, says

In some stories mermaids are associated with storms, shipwrecks and drownings, and in others they are benevolent, giving gifts, or falling in love with humans.

RELATED: Mermaid Tales From Native Tribes Abound

But the creatures Columbus saw in 1493 were manatees, also sometimes known as sea cows. The mammals can grow up to 13-feet, weigh as much as 1,300 pounds and live as long as 60 years.