Just because we haven’t seen them yet doesn’t mean they aren’t real

Around 71 percent of Earth is covered by water. With that in mind, it would seem that some kind of humanoid underwater creature would have had to develop over the course of billions of years of evolution. Still, proof of their existence has not been found.

The concept of mermaids has gone on for most of recorded history through myth, folklore, and legend. That is likely why the hope of their existence persists. Additionally, the fact that 80 percent of Earth’s oceans remain unexplored to this day allows our imaginations to run wild. Maybe mermaids do exist and we just haven’t found them yet.

What is a mermaid?

A mermaid is a water creature with the head and torso of a female human and a fish tail from the waist down. Both globally and throughout history, mermaids have appeared in folklore from a wide array of cultures. These stories have convinced some people that mermaids are real rather than mythical creatures, and there have even been supposed “sightings” of mermaids throughout the centuries. However, the sightings have never been confirmed or proven. As such, there is no real evidence to support the existence of mermaids.

The merman is much like the mermaid, only a male human version. Mermen are much less commonly mentioned in folklore, though the idea is that they coexist with mermaids. Together, mermaids and mermen are typically known as merpeople or merfolk.

Mermaid statues in front of the ocean
 Jimmy Baikovicius/Flickr

The likeliest origin of mermaid mythology as it currently exists in the West seems to be from the Sirens of Greek mythology. Originally, they were half birdlike, half-human women who taunted sailors with songs to cause shipwrecks.

Yet over time, they evolved to be half-fish, half-human, thanks to Christianity. Even earlier, in cave paintings from the Stone Age, around 30,000 years ago, something similar to a half-human mermaid figure appeared as well, likely coinciding with when humans started sailing.

Could mermaids be real?

Is there any science that supports the existence of mermaids? Not really. The only potential “evidence” would be actual sightings, but those are nothing more than hearsay, as no one has provided photographic evidence. Besides, with modern technology, photographs can easily be tampered with, so perhaps that wouldn’t even be enough.

The belief in mermaids stems largely from the community of sailors.  Along with the countless legends and stories of their existence, during medieval times, it was a popular thing to believe in mermaids.

Before modern science and ocean exploration, people let their imaginations wander about the kinds of things that could exist in the vast expanse that is the sea. Since fish and large mammals live in the ocean, why not some kind of human-ish creature as well?

Word of mouth helped spread tales of mermaids until their existence became kind of assumed in medieval communities. Sailors’ accounts of mermaids at this time, including some supposed interactions with mermaids, mostly told of their Siren-like qualities, causing death, shipwrecks, and otherwise luring the sailors off their course.

Since fish and large mammals live in the ocean, why not some kind of human-ish creature as well?

It is most probable that sailors confused and even continue to confuse other sea mammals for mermaids when they are out at sea. If a person is on a ship or boat and they see something in the water, they are either seeing it only half out of the water or for a brief moment if it jumps out of the water. Regardless, it would be hard to clearly identify a mermaid in these settings.

This, along with the fact that either the bright-light setting of mid-day or the low-light settings of sunrise or sunset would make it hard to distinguish what is what when trying to identify a creature from the vantage point of a ship.

It is easy to see how a manatee, for example, which has a flat tail and two stubby flippers that kind of look like short arms, could be mistaken for mermaids. This is especially true when the idea has already been planted in sailors’ minds from sea folklore.

A resurgence of belief

A resurgence in the belief in mermaids came about in 2011 when Animal Planet released a “documentary” called Mermaids: The Body Found. The program did include a very brief disclaimer that said, “This two hour special is science-fiction based on some real events and scientific theory,” though its brevity was clearly a tactic. It was meant to appear exactly like a true documentary, so it is no wonder that the hype about mermaids spiked after it came out.

What is clear is that people want to believe in mermaids, so belief in them persists.

Mermaids: The Body Found was about scientists from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who had found proof of the existence of mermaids by way of a mermaid who had washed up on Israel’s shore in 2009. In the “documentary” the scientists were hiding the truth about mermaids from the rest of society.

Because of the program’s presentation, which seemed realistic, people started to really believe in the existence of mermaids again. To date, it is the most-watched show ever aired on Animal Planet. So many people bought into it that the NOAA decided they would put a stop to all the inquiries that were coming in by officially denying mermaids’ existence.

What is clear is that people want to believe in mermaids, so belief in them persists. It has been going on for thousands of years, and no amount of evidence or lack thereof will change people’s minds if they don’t want them to be changed. All the claims of sailors’ interactions with mermaids are apparently enough to keep the legends going.

Mermaid sightings

The most famous mermaid sighting in history came from Christopher Columbus. In 1493, he said he saw mermaids near Haiti. His account had them uglier and more masculine than he had imagined. His claims were, of course, never verified.

The most famous mermaid sighting in history came from Christopher Columbus.

Another famous mermaid tale came from Captain John Smith during his time as a sailor. He claimed to have seen a mermaid with big eyes and green hair. This was in 1614 in the waters near Newfoundland. Smith says it was love at first sight upon witnessing the mermaid, that is, until he saw that she had a fish tail for a lower half.

There is also a story where a mermaid came to Holland by way of a dike in the 1600s but got hurt along the way. A human rescued her, took her to a lake, and nursed her until she was healthy again. After that, she became a productive member of Dutch society and even learned to speak Dutch and practiced Catholicism.

In Fukuoka, Japan, there is a temple that holds the “remains of a mermaid” who had washed up on their shores in 1222. The bones were preserved there because a priest believed the mermaid’s origins were a palace of a dragon god at the seafloor. They have been on display for about 800 years, though at present, only a few bones are left. They have never been scientifically analyzed, so their actual origins are not known.

Possible mermaid bones in Fukuoka, Japan
Possible mermaid bones in Fukuoka, Japan (Source: Youtube / ParanormalLibrary)

In the 1800s, many mermaid hoaxes emerged that had people fully believing that mermaids were out there roaming the oceans.

Then, in the 1800s, many mermaid hoaxes emerged that had people fully believing that mermaids were out there roaming the oceans. One hoaxer in particular by the name of P.T. Barnum had a display in the 1840s called the “FeeJee Mermaid,” and it was indeed popular. People paid to see his “mermaid,” which turned out to be a fake corpse with a monkey’s upper half and a fish’s lower half. At the time, people were actually fooled into thinking this was a mermaid.

P.T. Barnum mermaid advert
P.T. Barnum advertisement for FEJEE mermaids Wikimedia Commons

Many additional modern mermaid sightings have emerged as well. They could just be cases where people are mistaking sea mammals like manatees and dugongs for mermaids, or they could be from people lying for the fun of it.

Theories on mermaid existence

Because so much of the ocean remains unexplored, it is easy for people, both conspiracy theorists and others, to believe that mermaids could potentially exist. More commonly, people believe not in the mythical variation of the beautiful, siren-like mermaid, but some sort of human-like aquatic creature under the sea.

One of the more common rationales for why people think mermaids are real comes from what is called the “aquatic ape theory.” The aquatic ape theory purports that some of the primates that came before humans moved to the sea where there was less competition for food.

Hunting for food in the water so often led to those primates evolving to fully live in the water. They later evolved to become “mermaids,” or humans with some kind of fins and tails.

Because so much of the ocean remains unexplored, it is easy for people, both conspiracy theorists and others, to believe that mermaids could potentially exist.

This theory is often backed up by several points, including the idea that humans’ lack of body hair developed so we could swim faster, our fingers shrivel in water to make it easier for us to grip, we can hold our breath longer than other land mammals, and we have a bit of “webbing” between our fingers and toes. These points are certainly not concrete evidence, but for some this is enough.

Another reason the belief that mermaids are real persists has to do with confirmation bias, which means people look for evidence to confirm their ideas or interpret information in a way that supports their beliefs, even if there is evidence to the contrary. Thus, people who have done research can sometimes fall victim to confirmation bias by misinterpreting evidence.

Also, it is impossible to prove that mermaids do not exist, and some people take this to mean that their existence is plausible. Not being able to prove their lack of existence is plenty to keep some thinking mermaids are real.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101: