Real Mermaid Life in the Ocean
The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that mermaids "may" not exist, but also acknowledges that 80% of the ocean has yet to be discovered. Given that the NOAA is already finding the ocean to embrace a huge diversity of life and terrain; given that they are always finding new species of life, including the giant squid (whose existence was once mocked, along with mermaids); it is remotely possible that mermaids or mer-families could exist somewhere. If they did, though, what would life be like for them in the oceans of today?
We can imagine that "real" mermaid life (called such to differentiate from movie mermaids) would be similar to humans, if humans could live in the ocean, and if the description of mermaids passed down through the generations is halfway accurate. So let's look at what we "know" of mermaids so far, from generational legends of yore.
Legendary Images of Mermaids
Although there are no existing photographs of real mermaids, the story images and descriptions we have give us a lot of information, including looks, characteristics, and behaviors:
Looks - We know that mermaids are human looking, with long hair and fish-like tails, instead of legs. Their skin is smooth and sensitive, except for the tails, which we can imagine being scaly and slippery. They have an upper body like ours, with arms and hands like ours that can manipulate objects.
Characteristics - Mermaids spot ships from way far off, so their eyesight must be good. Because they spend a lot of time underwater, their hearing must be also. (Dolphins and whales have very acute hearing.) They breathe air, which means they have to be near the surface most of the time, or in underwater caves with air pockets. They can hold their breath underwater or maybe even breathe underwater, and they keep their eyes open. They have powerful, magnetic singing voices, with much practice being heard over crashing waves. They are hardy and can withstand the elements.
Behaviors - Mermaids take breaks from the ocean often, sitting on isolated volcanic rocks sunbathing and combing through their hair. They eat seaweed and fish raw. They frequently frolic with dolphins and likely communicate with them too. Mermaids recognize value, salvaging useful and beautiful items from shipwrecks. They know how to use objects as tools in complicated ways, how to think, and how to exchange thoughts and ideas. They're intelligent enough to lure sailors to their rocks, to cause shipwrecks from which they can salvage. They can interbreed with humans, and often warn them of upcoming storms and rough seas. And they work together to find food.
How Do Mermaids Find Food?
The ocean provides an abundance of food for mammals, especially in shallow, warmer areas close to coastlines - crustaceans, small and medium sized fish, many varieties of seaweed. If mermaids are anything like humans (or if we are like them), they would live near their best food source/s, whenever they could. Let's look at how mermaids might act when feeding.
Cruising through coral reefs or rough rocks, mermaids spear crustaceans with their long, claw-like nails, pulling them off their perches and picking the juicy bodies out of their shells. While they eat, small fish congregate under the mermaids' long, lightly matted hair spread above. When the mermaids finish feeding, they reach up to their hair, grab a hold of coral pieces woven into the ends, pull them down and gather them together with the small fish caught inside, like a net. Tying the ends together with a long seaweed strip, they carry the fish with them wherever they go, eating when hungry, until it's time to stock up again.
When not cruising coral reefs, mermaids harvest seaweed forests, reaching up rock walls or swimming in and out of kelp trunks, feeding off the leaves of the best tasting kelp, and catching small fish also feeding there. When kelp seed pods are ripe, they choose the healthiest ones to plant elsewhere, having already prepared spots in protected places. They also keep an eye out for humans using seaweed gathering machines for their own use, who raid the forests without realizing the mermaids are there, stripping them of a valuable source of food.
For larger fish, mermaids join dolphins to herd huge schools of cod, herring, or mackerel. They eat whatever meat breaks off of that chomped by their partners, and they catch smaller juveniles for themselves. Holding onto a dolphin fin with one hand, they use the other like a clamp, grabbing and closing onto fish as they rush by. They eat the fish raw out of that hand, while holding the dolphin for stability. If near land, they might let go and swim to a nearby rock to eat, or they toss fish after fish up to other mermaids on the rock, until there is enough to eat for all. It's exciting, hard work fishing like this and it keeps their bodies in good shape.
Ocean Predators Feeding
When "bait balls" of fish gather and are attacked by predators, dolphins work together to keep them near the surface. Not only does that make it easier to feed, but the mammals stay close to air for when they need to breathe.
How Do Mermaids Exercise?
In addition to herding food, mermaids and dolphins are known to play together. Since mermaids don't have legs, they can't ride on the backs of dolphins, but they can race each other holding onto a dolphin's fins. They also play ball, with mermaids using their hands to throw and catch, and dolphins using their mouths. They have splash fights, play hide and seek through caves and reefs, and tag or chase in the open ocean. They compete to see who can blow the biggest bubbles, and mermaids often swim through the bubbles the dolphins blow. And, of course, mermaids have their own games without dolphins.
Playing games and obtaining food gives mermaids plenty of exercise. For more relaxed activities there are explorations of shipwrecks, underwater caves, thermal pipes, seaweed forests, tide pools, and any number of interesting things. For resting, there are rocks, shallow pools, moss beds, sand bars, and caves partly underwater. They often make seaweed mats to float lazily across the ocean.
Unless humans or wounded shark predators are around, stress is generally low. (Stress is the biggest killer in humanoids - reducing resilience and leading to all kinds of other diseases.) As long as water and air are clean, mermaids are able to stay healthy. But with humans around, needing to feed ourselves and breeding as prolifically as we are, staying stress free has become nearly impossible for mermaids. Where, then, can mermaids go to live as stress-free as possible?
Best Places To Live In The Ocean
Safety and the availability of food are two of the biggest determinants of where mermaids can live. Clean water, good air, warmth, shelter, and recreational potential are others. Let's look at possible living locations for mermaids, using these criteria:
- Coastlines provide great sources of food. Healthy coastlines have good air and lots of recreational possibilities. There are warm, shallow seas where plankton grow well, where small fish feed and become food for bigger fish. Rivers pour mineral-rich waters into the ocean, which feeds the plankton.
Most coastlines these days, though, are heavily polluted with toxins and trash, which interferes with feeding, kills plankton and fish, and itches and burns sensitive mermaid eyes and skin. Coastlines are also filled with ogling (or disbelieving) human tourists, making it very unlikely that mermaids could survive anymore there.
- Volcanic islands have cliffs to which seaweed and crustaceans cling, attracting smaller fish, which attracts bigger fish, so they are also good sources of food. Islands have caves, which make good shelters, and they have rocks and beaches for mermaids to pull themselves up onto for resting. Some islands are still warmed by lava inside. Unless humans are living on them, the water that flows to the ocean is generally clean and healthy.
- Icebergs are great sources of food too. Little worms and microbes live in tiny holes in the ice, which fish and certain whales love to eat. Dolphins and porpoises are in turn drawn to the fish. When an iceberg pops (calves) the sound spreads throughout the region and alerts these predators that food is available. However, the temperature is very cold there and icebergs don't provide much protection. Icebergs are a great place for mermaids to feed and play, but not to stay very long.
- Geothermal vents could be one of the best places for mermaids to live these days, if they can handle the depth and acidity. The vents are underwater hot springs where tectonic plates spread apart and heat from inside the earth leaks upward. Researchers have discovered light down there, strong enough for photosynthesis, which could mean oxygen, as well. And humans rarely go there. That combination of natural light, nutrient-rich fluids, heat, and the volcanic-type terrain, could provide an ecosystem in the deeps rich enough to satisfy the life needs of mermaids, plus give them privacy. The Mariannas Trench and the Galapagos Rift are two such possibilities.
Given the abundance of food, things to do, and places to live, mermaids should be a happy, healthy community. Given, also, that warm, coastal areas are one of their best places to live, why do we humans never see them?
Human Interference & Quality of Life
Either mermaids don't exist anymore, or they do, but are hiding from us. Given how we humans have treated the oceans, either one is a possibility. We've interfered with their food sources, poisoned their waters, more than tripled the noise, split their territory up into shipping lanes for our own use, used it as a dumping ground, and overall created extreme stress for all life forms in the ocean.
Our plastics sludge, micro-beads, and trash floats throughout the ocean, collecting in miles wide "garbage patches" that coat plankton, blocking its access to air, reducing sunlight, and causing those feeding on it to eat as much plastic as plankton. The plastic causes starvation, which reduces the amount of food for populations higher up the food chain.
Plastic Pollution in the Gyres
Toxic, man-made chemicals pouring out of river mouths all over the world also affect the food chain, poisoning it when eaten and turning the ocean acidic. The acid in the ocean wears away the protective mucous coating that all ocean dwellers have, creating ulcerated skin and rashes. This is one of two main reasons that mermaids can't live near the coast anymore.
The other reason is tourism and the attitudes of humans toward sea creatures, especially intelligent ones. It doesn't take much observation of the way human industries have treated dolphins and whales (if not killing, then enslaving them) to recognize that the same would happen with mermaids, were they caught. Smart mermaids take themselves far away from humans.
Humans are breeding so prolifically that they have outgrown their normal food sources, so they are raiding the seas. Between fishing out complete populations of fish, using machines to harvest too much seaweed, killing coral reefs that feed crustaceans and small fish, and smothering plankton, humans are quickly destroying the food chain in the oceans for everyone.
Consequences of Overfishing
Cruise ships dump bilge wastes that used to nourish, but now poison the waters. Cargo freighters dump ballast water that spreads non-native species of plants and microbes that take over an ecosystem and kill it. OIl tankers and underwater drilling operations spill millions of gallons of oil into the ocean, then chase it down with toxic chemical dispersants.
Add to that the sonar and seismic tests run by the navy (supposedly for war) and by oil companies to find undersea oil deposits. These sonar blasts cripple the ability of cetaceans and other sea creatures to navigate the depths and communicate with each other. They blast out eardrums and cause whole pods of whales and dolphins to beach themselves. Between the US navy and the oil companies, human sonar is blasting an ever-increasing swath of ocean, including at least the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans.
To be safe, to live well and happily, mermaids would have to live as far away as possible from ships of all kinds - tourist, trawler, freighter, navy, and oil drillers. Since ships go all over the place now, that leaves geothermal vents, hundreds of feet below the ocean surface, as the only rational place for mermaids to live. If they are there, for how much longer will we let them survive?