The truth about mermaids

Midwinter 2009

By David Roper

June 15, 1608: In 1608, the English navigator Henry Hudson was skirting the polar ice off the Arctic coast of Russia in his second attempt to find a northeast route to the spice markets of China. Near the coast of Novaya Zemlya, Hudson made his log entry of 15 June:

This morning, one of our companie looking over board saw a mermaid, and calling up some of the companie to see her, one more came up, and by that time shee was close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly upon the men: a little after, a Sea came and overturned her: From the Navill upward, her backe and breasts were like a woman’s; her body as big as one of us; her skin very white; and long haire hanging down behinde, of colour blacke; in her going down they saw her tayle, which was like the tayle of a Porposse, and speckled like a Macrell.


July 11, 1959: 44.04N/68.35W, a small island east of Isle au Haut, Maine: When I was nine years old I saw two mermaids. Really. I understand why you might doubt me. So be it. But when I was nine years old, I saw two mermaids. Period.

It could have been just another false sighting, another apparition, like the ones in those handwritten captains’ logs of square-rigged vessels roaming the oceans looking for whales, or from the sailors’ journals aboard the spice traders journeying back from Zanzibar. It could have been written off as just one more incident out of a young boy’s imagination. But a stream of events flowed forth from that moment when I saw them, on that hot, languid day in July of the year 1959, that made me much different from other nine-year-olds. But that’s another, much longer story.

Early on that morning of the sighting, my father and I had hidden from the heat under the canvas awning in the cockpit of Phyllis, our old wooden cutter. We were anchored in a rocky Maine cove that was somewhat open to the Northeast. Dad had hoped for a breeze to cool us, but it was not to be. The anchor line lay limp of the end off the bowsprit. “Why don’t you get in the dinghy and practice your rowing?” Dad asked. I nodded. “And don’t forget your lifejacket…and please wear your hat.”

The dinghy’s bow line hung limp like the anchor line of the bigger boat. The totally calm and clear sea appeared viscous, a thick gel that held the reflections of the bow lines of the two boats in its midst like fruit in a Jello. My sudden movement into the dinghy was startling in a world so still. I untied the bow line and pushed away from the big boat, picked up the wooden oars and slid them into their oar locks. The sudden shuffling of the oars echoed against the shore. “I might go ashore. OK, Dad? Might do some beachcombing,” I said.

I pulled toward shore, my eyes aimed down at my feet. The oars were adult oars, too long and heavy for me, and I had to concentrate. There was a small pool of water in the bottom of the boat, and I watched it move forward and aft with each motion of my oar strokes. I spread my feet to the side of the bilge, trying to keep them dry. Then I looked over my shoulder to check on my progress toward shore.

The sandy beach and rocks and pine trees were getting close, and I began to smell the decaying seaweed left behind by the tide. The tide had been dead low, and its flood was just now beginning. I knew that in its retreat six hours before it would have left other things behind. It would be a good time for beachcombing, I thought.

I walked perhaps a half-mile, a long ways for a nine-year-old. Combing was good. I found three horseshoe crabs, those foot-long shelled creatures that look like miniature brown tanks, their tails like great cannons coming out of the turrets. I moved on, lost in my world of exploration. I found a bottle with a cork in it (though no note inside), a bright-yellow orphaned lobster buoy, and a broken hockey stick. The bottle excited me the most because someday I knew I’d find one with a note in it. It might be a note from someone who was in trouble, and needed my help.

I was thinking about that, imagining where the note would be from, and how I would help, when I rounded a bend in the shore. I didn’t realize it at first because I was looking down, but I was walking into a U-shaped indentation made by years of hammering and then funneling of the Atlantic ocean against the shore. It was a secluded nook, about 30 yards deep and 50 yards wide, and framed by two high, narrow arms of protruding rock.

The nook’s only access was at low tide, around these jutting walls, and along a short, normally submerged stretch of beach. The only other way to reach it was by boat, and I could see numerous nasty ledges now uncovered to seaward.

A gull flew close overhead, crying, but I didn’t look at it. I didn’t look at it because I was frozen by another sight. At first, it seemed just another scene from my vivid imagination, only this time I realized I hadn’t willed this. I was looking at two creatures curled against a smooth boulder near the sea. They glistened in the sunlight, their lower halves like scales… shiny, reflective. Their upper torsos were soft, pink and smooth like the morning’s sunrise, or like the skin on my friend Johnny Wyman’s baby sister.

Motionless, mesmerized, my eyes wide with wonder, I simply and silently mouthed one word: mermaids. One of the creatures was running her hands through her long black hair. Her back was arched, her head tipped back. Then she shook her head and ran her hands through her hair again. I looked at her whole body, up and down, over and over, my eyes each time skidding to a stop at her breasts. I looked at her face and thought of the paintings of angels I’d seen at the museum, faces smooth and rosy with the kind of pink that comes from being a bit embarrassed.

But the tail. It was a tail, and it was bent around, partly under a rock, where the other creature, who looked about the same, lay curled up, perhaps sleeping. It was all too much for a little boy, and I backed away slowly. They were probably 150 feet off, and hadn’t heard or seen me. Never taking my eyes off of them, I backed around the corner of protruding rock and jutting shore that protected the cove until they were out of sight. Then I leaned against the ledge, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, counted to 10, and looked around the corner again. They were still there.

And then, I ran.

Dave Roper is in the midst of writing a book about what happened in his life from ages 9 to 21 after, and due to, his mermaid sightings.