In what seems a whimsical mood, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has posted a page in the “Ocean Facts” section of the website of the National Ocean Service denying the existence of mermaids. After discussing the origins of the mermaid legend, the site asks, “But are mermaids real?” The NOAA responds with a no. “No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.”
The site notes that mermaids appear as mythical figures in every seafaring culture, in addition to other fantastic figures, and that paintings appearing to show women with fish-like features date back to the Stone Age.
Historians note that the idea of chimeric, half-human, half-animal figures have captured the imagination of every culture. In addition, sailors have often sited various figures, such as manatees, which from a distance appear to have human-like characteristics. In fact, the mammalian order to which manatees belong, the Sirenians, is named after the mythical Sirens, the sea-dwelling women who tempted Odysseus in Homer’s tale “The Odyssey.”
Recently, the cable television channel Animal Planet generated some controversy by airing a television program titled “Mermaids: The Body Found,” purportedly investigating real scientific evidence of mermaids. Although the show contained disclaimers announcing its fictionality, it was presented in a similar manner to many legitimate nature and history documentaries. The Animal Planet summary says that its show is “a story about evolutionary possibility grounded in a radical scientific theory – the Aquatic Ape Theory, which claims that humans had an aquatic stage in our evolutionary past.”
According to the “Aquatic Ape Theory”, many modern human features, such as hairlessness and bipedalism, are understandable in terms of an ancient human movement into water, shifting from a land-based to a wading lifestyle. Mermaid proponents argue that a branch of humans could have developed even more aquatic-based features, leading to mermaid-like creatures in ancient times.
As paleoanthropologist John Hawks notes on his blog, however, professionals dismiss the Aquatic Ape theory, “Every one of the features encompassed by the theory still requires a reason for it to be maintained after hominids left the aquatic environment. Every one of these reasons probably would be sufficient to explain the evolution of the traits in the absence of the aquatic environment. This is more than unparsimonious. It leaves the Aquatic Ape Theory explaining nothing whatsoever about the evolution of the hominids.”
Discovery Channel, in a statement released earlier this week, suggested that the NOAA statement was the result of its show, saying that the program was a “mix” of fact and theory.
“The show was an ‘X-Files’ type fanciful mix of state-of-the-art computer generated animation, historical fact, conspiracy theory and real and faked footage sprinkled with enough bits of scientific speculation and real science to make it seem plausible,” the Discovery site said.
In fact, NOAA scientists recorded a mysterious sound in the Pacific Ocean in 1997 that they called “The Bloop,” and the source of this sound has never been identified. The Discovery program mentioned this finding.
Speaking to LiveScience, NOAA spokesman Keeley Belva could not confirm that the NOAA’s post was directly tied to the Animal Planet program, but she added, “Arguably, yes, the timing is tied to the documentary. As we had gotten a couple questions about mermaids, we thought this would be a fun way to talk about it and to have information up about mermaids in different cultures and to draw people into our website and learn more about what NOAA and the National Ocean Service does.”
Given the scientific rejection of the existence of mermaids, the NOAA asks, “Why, then, do they occupy the collective unconscious of nearly all seafaring peoples? That’s a question best left to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists.”