HMS Columbus Day Special: In 1492…

by Mark Lukach

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. That’s how the famous poem starts.

And according to his journals from the voyages, he saw three mermaids along the way. And a UFO. Well, ain’t that some shit.

We are talking about the guy who started trans-Atlantic trade and travel. Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” argument hinges entirely upon Columbus’s voyage. This is no ordinary explorer. This is the explorer! Some accuse Columbus of starting the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Others say he initiated genocide in the New World. Here in the United States, we have a holiday named after him, which we celebrate this weekend by getting a day off from work. And the guy saw mermaids and a UFO.

According to the original source material:

After seeing three mermaids play off the coast of Haiti, Columbus observed on January 4, 1493, “They were not as comely as they are painted, but to some extent they have a human appearance about the face….”

As for the UFOs, to quote from Washington Irving’s substantial, four-volume “The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus:”

1492, October 11, 10:00 PM: “Christopher Columbus and Pedro Gutierrez while on the deck of the Santa Maria, observed, ‘a light glimmering at a great distance.’ It vanished and reappeared several times during the night, moving up and down, ‘in sudden and passing gleams.’ It was sighted 4 hours before land was sighted, and taken by Columbus as a sign they would soon come to land.

Let’s address the mermaids first. Mermaid sightings date back to prehistory, well before Pliny the Elder’s account of Simo the dolphin. (Pliny actually includes some great material on mermaids in his Natural History.) Pretty much every civilization that has a coastline has at some point mythologized creatures that are half-human, and half-fish.

There are a few facets worth mentioning with regards to our insatiable interest in mermaids. First off, one thing to consider is their possible conceptual origin. The ocean-traversing lifestyle is a lonely one. Sailors and fishermen spend a lot of time looking at other men, and the ocean, and not much else. The idea of a voluptuous creature, half-woman, half-fish, seems almost inevitable in this type of sexually exasperating condition, which may explain the mermaid’s original genesis.

However, it’s not like the mermaid was invented out of thin air. It appears that most mermaid sightings were instead just a simple case of mistaken identity. When sailors thought they saw mermaids, they were actually seeing dugongs or manatees. These closely-related sea mammals have several characteristics that make them human-like. They bob upright when they feed, using their arms to bring food to their mouths. They even nurse their young by cradling them in their arms. At night, if you saw a bobbing creature eating by using its arms and holding a baby, you might be inclined to think it was a woman with a tail. But up close, you would have to be pretty desperate to see a manatee and conclude that it was a beautiful, mysterious woman/fish hybrid. What Columbus called mermaids were almost unquestionably manatees, which might explain how unimpressed he was with their beauty.

The question of the UFO is much, much trickier. Columbus claims to have seen the dancing light in the night sky only a few hours before reaching land. It’s a bit of a stretch to call that a bonafied UFO sighting in the first place, although there is an open file on summarizing the case details. When you look at Columbus’ location of the sighting—a few hours away from landing on Hispaniola–he was sailing through a stretch of water that has subsequently become synonymous with the mysteries of the ocean: The Bermuda Triangle.

While the Bermuda Triangle is mostly known for the many unexplained disappearance of boats that have occurred within its borders, it is worth pointing out the area’s relevance in UFO studies. There have been more than a few UFO sightings in the Triangle. The most famous and documented UFO sighting occurred in 1971 to the USS Kennedy, with a personal account of the incident available at Another example of a well-documented UFO sighting is from 1980, and can be further explored at

It’s a bit unsettling to have an account from the 15th century point out unexplained lights in the sky, and for that area to develop a reputation as a haven for UFOs. There are innumerable theories to explain the weirdness of the Bermuda Triangle, but by far my favorite is the belief that aliens have a satellite research station underwater in the Triangle. They come up occasionally to capture humans, to bring them down to the deeps for study. Which explains the disappearing ships. And the UFOs, for that matter. It’s the perfect theory because it kills two birds with one UFO.

So what was that bright light that  Christopher Columbus saw as he was on the cusp of arriving at the New World? It’s hard to tell. No one really has an explanation for his case. It is officially unsolved. To conclude with the last lines of the poem:

October 12th they sighted land,
And set their feet upon new sand.

Some food for thought on this Columbus holiday weekend as you take the day off work to watch the baseball playoffs.

See also: Maid in Japan

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