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Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Marine Monkeys and Merfolk

Internet News Item of 2009:

Locals and tourists in the Israeli town of Kiryat Yam have been flocking to the coast in hopes of glimpsing a creature that most people believe only exist in fairy tales.

An alleged mermaid, said to resemble a cross between a fish and a young girl, only appears at sunset. It performs a few tricks for onlookers before disappearing for the night.

One of the first people to see the mermaid, Shlomo Cohen, said, "I was with friends when suddenly we saw a woman laying on the sand in a weird way. At first I thought she was just another sunbather, but when we approached she jumped into the water and disappeared. We were all in shock because we saw she had a tail."

The sightings apparently began several months ago.

$1 million reward

The town's tourism board is of course delighted with their newfound fame and local mystery fauna. Taking a cue from the town of Inverness, Scotland (on the shore of Loch Ness), the Kiryat Yam government has offered a $1 million reward for the first person to photograph the creature. Town spokesman Natti Zilberman thinks the reward money is well-spent. "I believe if there really is a mermaid then so many people will come to Kiryat Yam, a lot more money will be made than $1 million.”

Of course, if the mermaid does not exist -- perhaps it is a hoax, an optical illusion, or a simple misperception of a known animal -- then the town's reward money will remain safe and unclaimed, while the economy benefits from the influx of tourists vying to get a photo that will leave them set for life.

It's not clear what people are seeing, though the power of suggestion and imagination can be strong. Identifying animals in water is inherently problematic, since eyewitnesses by definition are only seeing a small part of the creature. When you add in the factor of low light at sunset and the distances involved, positively identifying even a known creature can be very difficult -- to say nothing of a mythological one!

Mermaids have long held fascination for seafaring peoples. There are a few[several=six] dozen significant historical claims of actual mermaid sightings. Most of them are clearly myths and legends, such as "true" stories about lovely young women who married sailors but were later discovered to be shape-shifting mermaids (such as in the film "Splash").

Other reports date back centuries, and offer no proof or evidence other than a curious story. For example, a Capt. Richard Whitbourne claimed he saw a mermaid in Newfoundland's St. James harbor in 1610. Another story, from 1830 Scotland, claimed that a young boy killed a mermaid by throwing rocks at it; the creature looked like a child of about 3 or 4, but had a salmon's tail instead of legs. The villagers supposedly had it a funeral and buried it in a small coffin.

P.T. Barnum's mermaid

Hoaxers have worked to satisfy the public's appetite for mermaids; the fact that none have ever actually been found is only a minor inconvenience.

The great showman P.T. Barnum introduced a mermaid to astounded crowd in the 1840s: his infamous "FeeJee Mermaid", actually a taxidermy fake. The head and torso of a small monkey was grafted onto the body and tail of a fish. It was bizarre and strange - --certainly nothing anyone had seen before — but a far cry from the banners and posters suggesting a beautiful, half-naked woman.

Other mermaid fakes appeared throughout the centuries. Some were manatees that had been dressed up to resemble a human form and exhibited for profit.

Whether the Israeli mermaid sighting is genuine, a hoax, or an innocent mistake exploited for tourism, the reality of finding a real mermaid might be different than people imagine, as shown by a song from the Newfoundland band Great Big Sea, which sings folk-rock versions of traditional sea shanties. One of their most popular songs, titled "The Mermaid," tells of a lonely sailor who courts a mermaid:

"I love the girl with all me heart / But I only like the upper part / I do not like the tail!"

From The Cryptid Zoo

Mermaids and Mermen in Cryptozoology: Modern Sightings and Reports

Why would cryptozoologists pay any attention to something as weird as mermaids and mermen? To answer that question, we first need to look at the history of these legends and sightings. Mermaids and their male counterparts, mermen (both sexes are collectively referred to as "merfolk" or sometimes "merbeings"), are found in legends and fairy tales along every coastline in the world, from Scotland to Hawaii, from Australia to Africa. Along with being geographically widespread, these tales are very old, dating back to the earliest written records from ancient Sumeria. As you might expect, merfolk are not a popular topic in cryptozoology. Since they sound so unreal, anyone working in cryptozoology who pays much attention to them can end up very embarrassed.
However, merfolk are the object of a surprising number of first-hand sightings and modern reports. The sheer volume of these reports can often force cryptozoologists to pay attention. Therefore, mermaids and mermen are more than just a preoccupation for fringe cryptozoologists. Even though merfolk are biologically absurd, some mainstream cryptozoologists have devoted considerable attention to trying to unravel this mystery.

The older fairy tales and today's sightings differ in a number of important ways. Although fairy tales like to describe mermaids that are blond, talkative and entirely human from the waist up, tales from first-hand witnesses generally describe mermaids who don't talk at all, who have green or black hair, and who have some fishy[or animal] characteristics on their top halves.

There are several different scientific theories that have been put forth to explain mermaids and mermen. One idea is that merfolk are animals. They might be some variety of undiscovered fish that has a top half that simply looks human, or they might be a variety of primate that evolved to a half-aquatic lifestyle. Unfortunately, not much evidence has come forth to support either idea. If merfolk exist and are animals, they must be incredibly rare, for science has never managed to get a dead body despite the fact that merfolk are supposed to love hanging about near shore, where capture should be easy and bodies would probably wash onto the beach.

The story goes that Merfolk were regularly washed up on shoree after storms before 1900, but such occasions have become much rarer after that. The reason for decrease in sightings since 1900 shall be discussed below. Also, claims of dead and stranded Merfolk corpses are still coming in, but the cases that make headlines ordinarily turn out to be the results of highly skilled taxidermists practicing their art.

This is a paste-up of a map of the sightings from Sea Enchantress plotted, plus a few more recent ones. I have had a few reports turned in to me independantly as taking place off the West Coast of the USA, and which are usually burly males of the "Merman" category and the rare females which are sometimes said to have a rather "Animalistic" appearance.

Here are some basic facts derived from the "Mermaid" entry in Wikipedia:

A mermaid (from the Middle English mere in the obsolete sense 'sea' + maid(en)) is a legendary aquatic creature with the head and torso of human female and the tail of a fish. The male version of a mermaid is called a merman; the gender-neutral plural is merfolk. Various cultures throughout the world have similar figures. Much like Sirens, mermaids in stories would sometimes sing to sailors and enchant them, distracting them from their work and causing them to walk off the deck or cause shipwrecks. Other stories would have them squeeze the life out of drowning men while trying to rescue them. They are also said to take them down to their underwater kingdoms. The Sirens of Greek mythology are sometimes portrayed in later folklore as mermaid-like; in fact, some languages use the same word for both creatures. Other related types of mythical or legendary creature are water fairies (e.g. various water nymphs) and selkies, animals that can change from one into another type of creature. (Mermaids are sometimes said to be half-seaserpent or half-eel, for example, and sometimes to be able to transform from Mermaid to Giant-eel form. Morag is an example)

Mermen are mythical male legendary creatures who are human from the waist up and fish-like from the waist down, whose female counterparts were the more commonly known mermaids. In Greek mythology, mermen were often illustrated to have a long snaky tail seaweed-like hair, a beard, and a trident. The actions and behavior of mermen can vary wildly depending on the source and time period of the stories. They have been said to sink ships by summoning great storms, but also said to be wise teachers, according to earlier mythology. A merman, like a mermaid, attracts humans with singing and tones.
Merfolk have, for centuries and independantly the whole woprld over, been described as having the upper body of a human and the lower body of a fish. Their skin color varies from caucasian all the way to tanned brown and shades of green: and their hair is described as being dark colored, reddish-brown and sometimes seaweed-like.Presumably the green colour as reported actually comes from seaweed when the Merfolk are covered with it.

Theoretical identification
Legends of these half-human, half-fish humanoids have circulated for millennia, even as far back as 4,000 years ago. It has been widely suggested or implied that manatees or dugongs could be behind the myth of the mermaid. It is said that these large aquatic mammals are notable for the way in which they carry their young, cradled in their arms much as a human would carry a baby. It is possible that sailors seeing these unfamiliar beasts for the first time, would assume that they had in fact stumbled across some sort of humanoid species, and consequently spread their accounts of the sightings through their homelands on their return from voyages. It has even been posited that the traditional image of a mermaid with long flowing hair could be attributed to manatees breaking the ocean surface underneath patches of seaweed, and giving the unfamiliar observer the impression of having long hair. (cited from Wikipedia)

For well over two centuries now, the standard scientific explanation for a mermaid sighting throughout the world in numerous books and articles has been that the manatee has been seen and mistaken for a mermaid. To this I say, there are few better examples of explanations that explain no part of the sightings they are intended to explain. Manatees have a physical appearance far more in common with a walrus than with a Mermaid. Anyone who could possibly mistake one of these blubbery, whiskered creatures for a Mermaid was either very drunk at the time or else a very bad liar, possibly both. And this explanation doesn't come anywhere close to explaining the stories or sightings of a Mermaid climbing atop of rocks near the shore or singing - two of the most common things Mermaids are consistently reported to be doing. And several of the aspects of the sightings that manatees are supposed to account for also turn out to be false allegations. It turns out, for example, that sirenians habitually nurse their young underwater with the bodies in a horizontal orientation: they do not sit up vertically in the water with the mother cradling the baby in its foreflipper. {This statement is particularly and specifically noted in Walker's Mammals of the World]

The second major issue with this explanation is basic geography. While Dugongs are found in shallow waters along the coast of the Indian Ocean, and Manatees are generally found through the Gulf of Mexico and the Congo and Amazon Rivers, neither of these species are found in the waters of the North Atlantic, where the majority of Mermaid sightings come in from.

To quote from Heuvelmans' 1986 Checklist of Unknown Animals published in CRYPTOZOOLOGY Volume 5, under "Marine Forms"
"Merfolk-like animals not necessarily related to the present dugong and manatees-their classical scientific explanation: "Mermaids" and "Mermen" reported from seas where no recent speciesare known to have lived in historical times. In the most complete work devoted to the mermaid legend (Sea Enchantress, Benwell and Waugh 1961)70 sightings of such creatures are listed. Out of these, 52 (almost three-quarters)have allegedly occurred far from the areas where the three species of [Sirenians]...are known to...have been confined...In these reagions the existance of seals, sea lions or walruses cannot, as suggested, make up for the lack of Sirenians because [To put it more bluntly than Heuvelmans does, because seals do not show breasts on the females in the anatomical position where human females have breasts. There, I've said it and I'm glad!]...Only a still-unrecorded species of sirenian, or unknown species of Primate adapted to sea-life, could explain the abundance and persistence of Merfolk reports in certain seas up to modern times."

The Amboine Mermaid, a specimen said to have been held in captivity in a tank and as such, counts as n early scientific specimen for the species. This has not been adequately explained as any other sort of creature since nothing else matches the description. The island of Ambon is in Eastern Indonesia to the East of Borneo.

Ningyos from Japan and Nagas (the half-human version) of India and Indonesia are commonly counted as the local versions of their Merfolk.

As Heuvelmans notes, Merfolk have been sighted through the years numerous times by credible and sober observers who are familiar with the sea and it's inhabitants. A sample of some reports thoughout history follows:

On October 29, 1811, John McIssacs gave sworn testimony that he had seen a Mermaid while walking along the beach near Campbeltown, Scotland. He was able to give a detailed description of the mermaid, who had red hair, white skin above the waist and reddish-gray below the waist, and who was sitting on a rock above the water. Two separate clergymen testified that McIssac was considered to be a sober steady man and should be considered a "reliable witness." Three days after McIssac's testimony the Sheriff-Sub at the time also took testimony from another witness, Katherine Loynachan, who had also seen an identically described Mermaid sunning on the rocks in the same area just a week before.

In 1809, William Munro, a school teacher from Thurso in Caithness, reported seeing a Mermaid on a rock near Sandside Head. In 1814, two fisherman off Port Gordon encountered two, merman and a mermaid. In 1949, fisherman off the coast of Cape More reported seeing merfolk several times. Mermaids were being reported off of Vancouver in 1949 and off the coast of Washington state in the 1970s-and in California at about the same time in both instances. Some of the "Mermen" in these areas are said to be large and burly and to resemble swimming gorillas: Heuvelmans even notes this in passing in the case of "Bobo" but does not recognise the category.

By all accounts, merfolk live in the sea with no need to return to land, but they do seem to be able to spend short periods out of the water, on the rocks near shore. The great majority of these accounts in modern sightings show the merfolk do not have a standard fishtail, they have a tail with fins extending from side to side, like those of dolphins, whales and other marine mammals.
One theme often attached to merfolk is the connection between them and storms. Many accounts credit them with either causing or predicting storms by singing. Through out the Middle Ages it seems there was quite the heated debate among scholars about whether Mermaids actually had the power to raise storms or whether their singing before a storm was simply a result of their keen perception of the weather. Of course, the debate was never really settled, but common belief of mariners was that if any member of the crew heard a mermaid singing, it was time to get in to port as soon as possible. If the Merfolk are animals and their vocalizations (or calls) are what we are calling "singing" they could very well be calling to each other when signs of rough weather come up. being IN the water, there is little doubt they could feel disturbances in the waves out to see before even the seamen would notice.

Documented sightings continued through the Renaissance up to the early parts of the Modern day. The North Atlantic in particular was the location for a continuing belief in the existance of Mermaids and Mermen (Particularly in areas like Portugal, the Azores and Canary Islands, the Greater and Lesser Antilles and the East Coast islands off the Southern USA), as well as the scene of great numbers of reports. Dispite the increasing ridicule heaped on those who claimed to see Merfolk, sightings continued without break into the nineteenth century. And throughout the 19th and 20th centuries it was Scotland and the Orkney Islands in particular where many of these highly credible accounts come from.

So the question may come to mind of "Why did these sightings become so few inferequent after the end of the 19th century if there were so many at that time?" And in fact the answer if fairly simple. During the end of the 19th century and early 20th there were a great many advances in technology. One of the greatest impacts on marine life was the propeller driven ship. As the number of propeller driven ships grew, the number of Merfolk sightings dropped off drastically. With a small amount of consideration, this makes perfect sense, seeing how most other marine creatures do their best to avoid the noise and the dangerously sharp, fast spinning propellers of modern vessels.

It also goes without saying that there are many misidentifications and hoaxes when dealing with Merfolk. While it's unfortunate that people would choose to seek publicity through lies, we all know it happens. Cases such as the "feejee" mermaid have become more famous than the more credible cases. Not ALL of these misidentifications are hoaxes however. There are two other basic sources of mis-identification. These are Seals and Other aquatic Mammals and then again regular human swimmers. While it's hard to credit the great many claims of Mermaids from Seamen and seaside inhabitants as being seals or other normal aquatic animals, especially when they state that they know what these animals look and sound like. That being said, there are supposed to be caes where it HAS happened, especially when a witness is not familiar with seals or similar creatures, and when these sightings happen after dark. And obviously the most likely source of misidentifications is the liklihood that people seeing actual human beings swimming in coastal waters.

For interested cryptozoologists there is little question of the reality of Merfolk as living creatures. But the general scientific belief is that these creatures are fictional and ALL such sightings must be either hoaxes or misidentification of known creatures. For the general population they are a beautiful part of children's stories and movies, but they are far from a reality, but for many of us, the hope and belief is that they do actually exist, and can be proven to exist.
And for at least one Israeli, town it's now become a matter of money! A number of sightings of alleged Mermaids in Israel have forced at least one town's council to get involved, offering a $1,000,000 reward to anyone who can prove that the mythical merfolk do exist in its waters

Now as to the theory about what the Merfolk could be, I happened to have had access to a copy of Sea Enchantress in the 1970s (it has since then become virtually impossible to finsd a copy) and by the time I had joined the SITU I had invented a scenario to account for the reports as a type of marine primate. This theory was the subject of a couple of submissions to the SITU including during the period when the Nrew Britain Ri was in the news (Some aspects of the Ri sightings, although discounted as being dugongs, still sound more like descriptions of Merfolk and were never actually disproven) My theory was that they were manlike primates which developed swimming tails parallel to the cetaceans. Hence their ancestors had long tails and were monkeys and not apes. My model compared the ancestors to macaque monkeys and estimated that they could possibly have evolved a dolphin-like tail during the Miocene.

Macaque mokeys can be either short-tailed or long-tailed and several of them have manes of differentiated head-hair, moustaches and beards. Several kinds of macaques find food in salt water lagoons and beaches, going out to find crabs and stranded sea creatures, and many are good swimmers. This includes the Japanese macaques and the specifically-named Crab-eater macaques. If a type of Miocene monkey of the same general type as the macaques took to a more actively-swimming marine life during the Miocene, it could evolve two ways into having a more dolphin-shaped finned tail for swimming, and a more human-likehead, arms and hands as a refinement on the monkey original: the head, arms and hands would already generally resemble a human being's, and a macaque ancestry would give them the long head-hair (and beard on the male) which coincidentally increased the resemblance to a human as far as human witnesses were concerned. At the same time, traditions would still insist (such as in the case of the Ningyo)that the inside of the mouth and the teeth looked like a monkey's, and that the males had notably longer tusks. The males were usually stated to be somewhat larger and more "Bestial" than ordinary humans, but the degree of sexual dimorphism tended to make the females seem to be more of the usual female human appearance.

This theory was independant of the Aquatic Ape theory which had a brief popularity a little after this theory was formulated-it revolved around a kind of monkey, not an ape- but the two theories were parallel and several of the same biological observations and arguments would apply in either case. This would mean it was plausible that the creatures could metabolize saltwater and get rid of the excess salt by shedding salty tears, in turn a more humanlike trait, as described in the Aquatic Ape theory. The artwork depicting the "Aquatic Ape" here was created by Robert Dumont on Deviant Art.

The hypothetical primate would tend to develop a more rounded head, larger eyes, and also tend to lose its hinder legs, as demonstrated in this mock-up I made by way of demonstration.

The end result would be overall like "Empyrian's" reconstruction of a Mermaid's skeleton on Deviant Art: I am showing their version rather than mine for the sake of a second opinion. The shape of the head and its placement on the neck would probably be not quite so much human-like, and that is the area which would be most onscured by the thick mane of hair on the head. This model does show rear limbs replaced with flippers using a cetavcean's flipper skeleton as a model: I am pretty mich convinced that the rear flippers are there and variously depicted on the different representations but they function as claspers during mating (That would be the reason whu some of the depictions tend to show sharklike number of and positioning of tail fins) I also include my reconstruction based on the reports from Sea Enchantress so long ago. The hands would have webbed fingers and some reports say the fingers are extra-long and have extra joints. I hypothesized that objects the Mermaids were handling that looked like combs and compacts or mirrors could be fish skeletons (or partially-eaten fish they were still weorking on) and clamshells, or abalone or other shellfish.

I also guessed that the creatures had an overall furry pely which had to be oiled and rubbed like a sea otter's and that was the reason that the Merfolk always seemed to be rubbing and grooming themselves.

My general sense is that Dinsdale made the first general notice of the reports in Sea Enchantress in The Leviathans and then made a plea to take the reports seriously: Heuvelmans had an inclination to take the reports seriously but his inclusion of the category on his vhecklist I think is because Dinsdale had insisted. And I must also hasten to emphasize that my reconstruction and all the attendant speculation is completely independant of Loren Coleman's similar "Merbeing" classification in his Field Guide to Bigfoot (etc)--and was originally made decades before, and had remained unpublished in the SITU's files for decades as well.

And you are at complete liberty to disbelieve any or all of this: I make this theory only as a suggestion as to how the creatures in the Merfolk reports might have come about and what they might be. I do know that skepticism against any such theory runs rather high. But ever since I made this theory I have also gotten more reports privately, and to me they tend to reinforce the theory.

Best Wishes, Dale D.
PS and for the record, my suggested Genus name for the Merfolk as of 1973 was "Naiadus" and the family "Naiadae" as allied to the Cercopithecoidea. I likewise state this as a suggestion only.


  1. If it helps to make the specification, Merfolk undulate vertically.

    Merfolk are almost unversally the same size as regular human beings only slightly longer because the tail is longer than the legs are on a normal human being. The total length is ordinarily given as about five to ten feet long as an adult (average 6-8 feet long), comparable to some medium-large seals, and with the males substantially larger than the females. They are seen singly, in pairs, in small groups or large groups; but more recently most of the sightings have been of single individuals only.

    Best Wishes, Dale D

  2. Don’t stop writing, you’ve given me lots of good info
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  3. Well, you will notice it has taken me over 35 years to get this published, and then I had to publish it myself to get it out there!

    Don't worry, I've got LOTS of material for both blogs yet.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.

  4. Why didn’t I find this post earlier? Keep up the good work!

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  6. If intelligent merfolk existed, wouldn't we have discovered their tools, underwater dwellings and civilizations, fossil evidence of long tailed macaque monkeys becoming merfolk, or a physical specimen or two by now?

  7. We are not necessarily talking in terms of intelligent Merfolk, only in terms of their being marine Primates Specimens are alleged almost constantly and only a few are ever examined, the mere fact that we have not seen any valid corpses of Merfolk does not necessarily mean that none have ever been captured and that ALL the allegations are false. You are assuming facts not in evidence.

  8. Sorry about that, dale. (But is there any likliness of merfolk being intelligent like we are?)

    1. There is simply no evidence to go on

  9. But there is still no fossil evidence of macaque monkeys evolving into an aquatic species.

    1. No need even for that, because there are living species that go to water a lot for feeding activities, swimming and recreation, and some of them do eat a lot of foods found in the water, such as crabs and shellfish. Furthermore some fossils have been interpreted as showing an inclination to go into the water for feeding also. You probably need to do more research before announcing one more of your flat statements based on your ignorance of a topic once again.

  10. What to make of stories of merfolk shapeshifting, developing legs and marrying humans?

    1. Folklore. Probably unlike you, I make a distinction between mere Folklore and actual reports which were meant to be taken seriously.

  11. You should read the interesting articles on merfolk at biological

    1. Completely and totally irrelevant to the idea we have here. The anatomy we hypothesize is in no way comparable to the conception of the anatomy that is criticized. the two blogs are talking apples and oranges. Once again you are assuming this blog follows the usual conventions. You should know better than that by now.


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