The following post is a redaction of a History Channel article.
On day in 1493, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, saw three “mermaids”–in reality manatees–and describes them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” Six months earlier, Columbus (1451-1506) set off from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, hoping to find a western trade route to Asia. Instead, his voyage, the first of four he would make, led him to the Americas, or “New World.”
Mermaid sightings by sailors, when they weren’t made up, were most likely manatees, dugongs or Steller’s sea cows (which became extinct by the 1760s due to over-hunting). Manatees are slow-moving aquatic mammals with human-like eyes, bulbous faces and paddle-like tails. It is likely that manatees evolved from an ancestor they share with the elephant. The three species of manatee (West Indian, West African and Amazonian) and one species of dugong belong to the Sirenia order. As adults, they’re typically 10 to 12 feet long and weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. They’re plant-eaters, have a slow metabolism and can only survive in warm water.
As it relates to the Book of Mormon, which I believe occurred in Mesoamerica, it should be noted that Yucatec Mayans, upon seeing the Spanish horse, a species they never had before encountered, called them tapirs. Yes, the Yucatec word for tapir is also the Yucatec word for horse, tzimin. Semantic extension is real and mentions of horses and other anachronisms in the English translation of the Book of Mormon might be examples of this same phenomenon.