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Siren or Sirenia; Mermaid or Manatee?

By Meredith Bennett, MOEC

Over five centuries ago a certain explorer declared that he saw real live mermaids off the coast of the Dominican Republic. It was Christopher Columbus! He recorded in his ship log, dated January 9, 1493, that he saw three mermaids arise from the sea, but concluded that the mermaids were not as beautiful as people had said because their faces carried some masculine traits. Experts today believe that those mermaids were actually manatees.

Mermaid myths are worldwide; some describe mermaids as playful creatures and others as dangerous or bad luck, but they are usually depicted as gorgeous creatures of the sea. Baby manatees may be adorable, and gorgeous to their mother manatees, but could they really be mistaken for mythical mermaids? Did Christopher Columbus and his sailors just spend too long in the sun? Even though manatees are real, and mermaids are fantasy, they have been so entwined throughout history that the genus for manatees is Sirenia, after the singing creatures (read: mermaids) of ancient Greek mythology. And while mermaids flourish through tales upon tales retold by authors, artists, and filmmakers, even by Walt Disney himself, their real-life counterparts are struggling to survive in the seas and rivers around the world.

Manatees are large gentle creatures that usually move at a slow pace, which makes them vulnerable to boat strikes and the dangers of getting caught in fishing nets. Algae blooms and cold waters can also be a problem for manatees. And even though we have recently seen upticks in the manatee population, they are still in danger and saw record-high mortality statistics in Florida in 2018. The Vanishing Mermaid Gift Shop is so named to honor the reality of manatees in danger and inspire the public to protect them from becoming just a myth or legend. Gift shop proceeds are dedicated to the Manatee Observation and Education Center (MOEC) whose mission statement is “to promote understanding and responsible actions for the protection of the Treasure Coast’s fragile ecosystems and their inhabitants.” MOEC programs and exhibits educate visitors about nature, and how humans impact the environment and teach ways to interact with our natural environment to lessen that impact.

The Vanishing Mermaid Gift Shop continues MOEC’s mission by offering so much more than souvenirs and trinkets. Many of the product lines carried are fair trade, ecofriendly and geared towards today’s concerns for the environment. Take The Naked Bee for example. This line has supplied wildflower seeds to be given away as part of “Operation Pollination” to secure more habitats for honey bees. The Vanishing Mermaid has given almost a hundred packets away to visitors from all over the world. The Naked Bee supplies bath and body products that are biodegradable and safe for coral reefs, including reef-safe sunblock. Stationery and other products from Tree Free Greetings are made using entirely post-consumer recycled paper, using only power generated by solar panels and wind turbines. Organic Tagua, a company named after the material it uses, creates stunning handmade jewelry, keychains, and figurines from a sustainable and organic source. Tagua is a palm tree nut from Ecuador, which produces over a hundred of these hard nuts a year, per tree. The nut is also referred to as vegetable ivory since it has the same texture, density, and appearance of animal ivory, without causing any harm to animals or the rainforests where it is gathered.

The Vanishing Mermaid is dedicated to educating and inspiring even its youngest customers by offering toys, books, and accessories with nature and sea life themes. We hope our manatees and mermaids will inspire children to become marine biologists, educators, or eco-savvy politicians. Awareness is the first step! As Baba Dioum has said, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”


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