Out of the Blue: A Mermaid Quest

“I can understand how the sailors dreamt of beautiful sea-girls singing from the depths, because the music of the whales is truly mesmerizing.

-Tanya Streeter

“It doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in weird unknown creatures living down there.”

-Patrick Musimu

I saw one! The bottom was as dark as deep space, the sun was playing in her hair, having known her all along and me simple terrestrial creature I had been missing out all this time. Missing out on her beauty ….

I woke up that next morning feeling immersed in the charm of the underwater princess I had seen. I had to go down into the dark and see her again. I jumped in the boat and headed for the outer reef. Past the reef, an intricate rock formation gave birth to what looked like an underwater town.

I thought to myself this place has to be a mermaid hangout. It was only 40 feet deep but the surrounding rocks blocked part of the morning sun creating a compelling darkness. Sunrays pierced down through rock openings and various holes casting a surreal spell on the place.

I dropped the anchor and went down to secure it in a rock hole. Gliding down I played with enormous blue parrotfish. I had never seen any that big before! I continued down, in and out of this underwater rock town, still keeping in the back of my mind that I was here to meet with her. She had sung to me that enchanting song in my dream and I was sure she had called for me.

Lost in my thoughts I had forgotten about breathing. Not being a merman, a powerful contraction got me out of the gloom and I reached rapidly for the surface to take a huge gulp of air. I stayed there floating for a moment and began to think about my mermaid quest. Was I crazy? Had the dream mermaid cast a spell on me?

The ancient civilizations like the Philistines and the Babylonians had worshipped fishtailed gods. Mermaids were also on Phoenician and Corinthian coins. Even Alexander the Great was known to have spent some time with these attractive sea creatures. Art from all over the world and different eras exhibit the beauty of the sea goddess. Perhaps the most famous is still Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid in Copenhagen. The statue was sculpted by Edvard Eriksen, based on a tale by the Danish storyteller about the Sea King’s half-human, half-fish daughter, commanded to wait on a harbor rock for 300 years before entering the world of humans. What I found most interesting is how each great civilization I studied, from the Babylonians to the Roman to the ancient empires of Asia, give reference to mermaids in their art or stories. Curiously enough, they all give a pretty similar portrayal of the phenomena.

Expressing my thoughts about my “mermaid quest” to a rather pragmatic audience would always lead me to the same answer. “They do not exist! It is just some sexually frustrated sailors that were hallucinating after too many days at sea far away from their wives”. I would then push the argument further by saying that around 1830 in an island off the northwestern coast of Scotland a woman washing her feet in the Ocean witnessed a sea creature half woman half fish. My “opponent” would then pull some Freudian arguments from his sleeve or simply dismiss my point by affirming it was just a seal (or a manatee for more tropical cases). How frustrating!

I was so fascinated by mermaids that I found myself on this gorgeous day of the coast of Panama playing in the underwater town and looking for an answer. During my long surface interval floating, looking up at the sky I thought I heard something. Perhaps it came from the nearby jungle. I decided to get back. I made a quick descent this time to the bottom to hang out by the wall on the bright white sand. And there coming out of the blue, literally, a stingray started circling around me as if she wanted to play. I followed her closely, in and out of the caves and finally came up. The current at the surface was getting stronger; it was time to go. Puzzled by the encounter I brought up the anchor and headed back home. The next day while logging some hammock time I started to think about mermaids again. This time in a different way not as an actual being but more as an image, a myth of the seas. I began to see the mermaid like a symbol who embodied the beauty of the aquatic realm, and her songs were the waves crashing against the rocks, chants of the whales. The beauty that is what it was all about!

I later decided to submit the question on the existence of mermaids to the ones who know the really dark depth of the ocean. Maybe they had other leads or even some similar experiences. Patrick Musimu kindly answered in a couple of days following my email:

“I suppose mermaids are part of these beliefs created by the flourish imagination of ancient globetrotters who, at some part of their voyage, saw things they couldn’t understand or saw for the first time (e.g. Manatees etc) .It doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in weird unknown creatures living down there. Look at the Amazonian forest “the lung of our planet”. Every day scientists discover new species. So little money is spent on research on our oceans, and we technically have access to such a minor portion of it. No wonder that we can expect to discover new living creatures down there. To come back to our mermaid, half fish- half human (good looking) which according to some fairy tales would be able to distract famous travelers from their route, I like to think that this is a pure masculine illusion (lovely though). If women had been the first to conquer the sea I suppose the mermaid modern version would be more a kind of a hybrid between Schwarzenegger (or Brad Pitt) and a dolphin… As a freediver I like to imagine that when I am deep down there, I’ve finally reached a moment of total solitude and inner peace. So meeting there a mermaid would not be my cup of tea.”

Even though I had never been in touch with Tanya Streeter, reading her last articles on deeperblue about the great journey she was embarking on, I felt I had to have her opinion.

“Personally, I am a realist in life and hence, don’t believe in mermaids. I believe they are a myth that arose when sailors of years gone by heard the singing of whales from the hulls of their boats. It is a beautiful sound I have heard many, many times when I have been training for deep dives. I can understand how the sailors dreamt of beautiful sea-girls singing from the depths, because the music of the whales is truly mesmerizing.”

Sure, sailors must have been drunk. But… there is a but! What could best personify the overall beauty of the world’s Oceans to the sailors than a mermaid? We all experience the Ocean in different ways, but I believe one thought is underlying them all- “there is beauty in every drop of it”. And who from the stingrays, the whales or even the mermaids’ best exhibit that beauty? It is for every one of you to determine and as far as I am concerned I will continue to believe in the myth.

I would like to personally thank Tanya Streeter and Patrick Musimu for taking the time to answer the question from a “mermaid dreamer”, right in the middle of major training sessions.