Susette has a Masters degree in Sustainable Development. She leads her local Green Council and writes for The Sustainable Business Review.
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, and 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, 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 raw fish. 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, and 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 what was 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.
Read More From Exemplore
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?
The Effect of Pollution
Questions & Answers
Question: Do you think if mermaids were alive, they would be scared of humans?
Answer: Oh, absolutely. Too many corporations don't give a rip about other species or their habitats, getting rid of whatever's in their way of making money, except the ones who could make money off of mermaids. They would capitalize on the curiosity of regular citizens, who would be so excited they'd invade the personal space of mermaids without thinking twice, ogling everything they do and photographing every movement they make. Either mermaid lives would be endangered, or they'd be living in a fishbowl. Neither of those scenarios sound very exciting to me. If I were a mermaid, I'd stay as far away from humans as possible . . . Except maybe those few in the far north British Isles (for example) who would respect the human/mermaid relationship and keep it quiet.
Question: What would mermaids do underwater other than searching for food and eating? What would occupy them all day? Do you think they have a class system? And like some sort of "school"?
Answer: The young ones would need to know how to survive in the ocean: which plants, mollusks, and fish to eat and which are poisonous, how to avoid humans and sea life that are dangerous, maybe even how to farm seaweeds and other food, so some kind of school, yes. They may very well see themselves as responsible to keep a sea life balance, like we feel responsible for keeping the land healthy, so the adults would be experimenting to find out how to counteract the negative effects of humans on the ocean. They might spend time making decorations for their hair or abodes. Then, of course, they most likely play games amongst themselves and with other sea life (like dolphins). They must hold races through the water, daredevil diving contests from rocky cliffs, some kind of ball throwing, maybe even a form of water polo. We don't know any of this, of course, since they'd be smart enough to not let us see them, assuming they even exist anymore.
Question: Are mermaids actually real?
Answer: There isn't any evidence about mermaids existing now, but then do we know what to look for? And if we found it, would we believe it? There has been evidence of the existence of Sasquatch, for example, yet huge swaths of the population (especially "scientists") say they don't exist. As far as history is concerned, again there is evidence of the previous existence of mermaids in the form of stories/experiences handed down verbally through the generations. But "hard" evidence? We don't know what to look for. We don't know how to tell the difference between mermaid leavings vs the leavings of other ocean mammals. Or humans, for that matter. If we saw mermaid ribs in the ocean, would we say they're mermaids or some other kind of earth-bound hominid that just got deposited there? We depend on physical sight to tell, but then we trash the accounts of those who believe they've seen mermaids. So who knows? It's all a mystery still.
Question: Where are mermaids often seen in the world?
Answer: Mermaids are not found in the world anymore. IF they still exist, they're hiding from us, and that's probably very smart.
Question: You said mermaids interbreed with humans. How?
Answer: That's a good question. Since, as far as we know, they don't exist anymore and there are no surviving myths about those kinds of details (that I'm aware of), we'll never know for sure. We can speculate, however, by looking at other mammals in the ocean—like dolphins, which mate belly to belly, like we do. Their genitals are similar, but with extra folds to help prevent seawater from killing sperm. (If you want to see how dolphins mate, check out YouTube videos.) Humans and mermaids, of course, have arms to hold each other in place, which dolphins don't have.
Jade on July 24, 2020:
I'm a new coming author, and I have to write a chapter on realistic mermaids in my book Kindness Lasting. Thanks for the help!
Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on November 26, 2019:
@what—It's not meant to be truth. It's speculation, as stated in the article.
what on November 25, 2019:
can u ex u do not tell the truth
Anessa on May 03, 2018:
This is very helpful for my project thankyou
Leanne on March 08, 2018:
This is very helpful. i a doing a school project about creatures. i chose mermaids. Thank you very much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1
Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on March 08, 2018:
Thanks Andrina––I don't know what you mean by "extremely old" but I'm glad my article was helpful. Hope your play went well. It sounds like an interesting experience.
Andrina on March 07, 2018:
This is extremely old but super helpful to me! I'm in my school's production of Little Mermaid and our student director is having us write things like our character's favorite food on notecards so that we all actually HAVE character and don't have to come up with it in a rush during tech week like last year... lol... But this is helpful for trying to imagine what life would really be like as a mermaid!
Hanna on August 20, 2017:
Can you please help me to become a mermaid like h2o
Tenzin diki on August 02, 2017:
Well done bravo!!! I just enjoyed reading it I read so many books about mermaid but your article is like out of mind to me thank you so much.. I really appreciate that.
Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on March 12, 2014:
Good, good. If I've got your imaginations soaring, that's what I wanted. Explore on!
theBAT on March 11, 2014:
A well written hub. Congratulations! While reading, I can imagine how mermaids live if they do exist today. Thank you for sharing.
Natasha Pelati from South Africa on March 10, 2014:
Interesting and intriguing hub! you have got me curious to find out more about mermaids and life in the ocean
Susette Horspool (author) from Pasadena CA on March 10, 2014:
Thanks folks. One of these days I'm going to write a hub on some of the interesting ways people are developing to clean up the gyres (even kids). Maybe we could use some of those discarded plastics for building ocean living quarters (lol).
Grace Marguerite Williams from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on March 09, 2014:
This is a fascinating and INTERESTING hub. No wonder it won HOTD. The oceans have always been a fascinating subject to me. Didn't know that 80% of the oceans are yet undiscovered. Who knows what LIFEFORMS can be found? The oceans can be further navigated as more food sources and perhaps in the future, living quarters.
Kelly A Burnett from United States on March 09, 2014:
Outstanding job and HOTD well earned title! 80% of the ocean is unknown - isn't that phenomenal with today's technology?! Great job! Well deserved accolades.
Paula from The Midwest, USA on March 09, 2014:
Watergeek, what an interesting hub about possible mermaids! I found it interesting to learn about the lore and legends. It is unfortunate to learn about the plastic sludge mentioned, and I hope something can be done to turn things around in that regard. On the one hand it isn't a surprise, I just didn't know how serious it was/is. Thanks for sharing this information and very neat photos as well. Voted interesting and beautiful.