From afar, plenty of people have mistaken dugongs for mermaids; their tails curve and point at the tips to resemble the tail of a mermaid.
Historians have detailed the dugong’s small rounded heads, human like eyes, front flippers and streamlined bodies. These human features, paired with their slow and graceful mesmerising swimming, are believed to be the reason why sailors and early explorers believed the dugongs were mermaids.
The well-known explorer Christopher Columbus may have mistaken a dugong for a mermaid according to writings discovered in his journal that dates back to January 8th 1493:
“On the previous day, when the Admiral went to the Rio del OrOy he saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face.”
Historians refer to the mermaids Columbus wrote about as ‘the mermaids of Columbus’ and have confirmed that the mermaids he described were most likely dugongs.
The dugongs he described were said to rise well out of the sea. While this elegant display isn't a rare sight, as dugongs need to surface to breathe, you’re likely to only catch a glimpse of the top of their head, their snout, their back or tail breaking the water’s surface.
Australia is lucky to have the largest proportion of the world's dugong population, with many residing in coastal waters from Shark Bay in Western Australia, across northern Australia to Moreton Bay in Queensland. This area includes the Great Barrier Reef, which supports globally significant populations of dugong and is one reason the area was given World Heritage status.
Dugongs can be spotted within the Great Barrier Reef, with sightings possible off The Strand and Rowes Bay in Townsville. These local sightings are due to the seagrass meadows found in the sheltered coastal waters of Cleveland Bay. Dugongs are herbivores that eat large amounts of seagrass; up to 40 kg per day!
Dugongs in the wild tend to be shy and are hard to see when they come to the surface to breathe, so be sure to look closely if you think you’ve spotted one because just like Columbus believed …
... you may have just seen a mermaid.
To learn more about dugongs and to discover how you can help protect these mystical marine mammals, visit the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority by clicking the link here.