Did Columbus really see mermaids?

Christopher Columbus, as you might have heard, is sort of a big deal in most history books because of the whole "discovered North America thing" — even if his discovery of the "new" continent was one of those famous events that never actually happened, at least as we know it. After all, the people who were already living there were doing a fine job at discovering the place, as was viking Leif Erikson (who likely preceded Columbus by a cool five centuries). 

With that in mind, it's probably worth turning our attention to another, often overlooked part of Columbus' legacy: That one time he saw mermaids. Yes, according to History, Columbus reported seeing three actual, real, live mermaids during his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean — specifically on January 9, 1493. You know, that actually seems like a pretty worthwhile discovery. Why has no one made a bigger deal of this? Why isn't that day a national holiday? Mermaid Day, people! You know you want one. 

Christopher Columbus' 'mermaids' were actually manatees

Yeah, so this is why. Columbus actually saw three humble manatees who were just floating around minding their own business, and mistook them as legendary mermaids. This actually explains why he described them "not half as beautiful as they were painted."

To be completely fair, Columbus isn't exactly alone in his confusion. It is thought that manatees (as well as dugongs and the now-extinct Steller's sea cows) were quite often mistaken for mermaids in the days of yore, to the point that Encyclopedia Britannica notes they're commonly known as "sirenians." How art and legend managed to turn these blobby, 1,200-pound creatures with wacky snouts and weirdly intelligent eyes into the beautiful fish-tailed ladies Columbus presumably referred to is anyone's guess. Presumably, imagination can take some pretty strange twists and turns when you spend weeks and months at sea.