A tale of mermaids

Mermaids: The myth comes to life
Mermaids: The myth comes to life 05:09

This summer thousands of mermaids ditched the sea for the Boardwalk, for the 37th annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade. 

And in Florida, little mermaids worked on their tail technique, at Weeki Wachee's Junior Mermaid Camp.

A mermaid is spotted on dry land, at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade in New York City. CBS News

Varla Ventura, author of "Among the Mermaids: Facts, Myths, and Enchantments from the Sirens of the Sea," has a deep sea-ted interest in these magical creatures: "Today, you have many people who believe in mermaids.  Perhaps they just believe in their heart. If mermaids are real, anything is possible!"

Ventura says mermaids date to ancient mythology. "There are examples of mermaids going back thousands of years, mermaid stories, mermaid tales," she said.

"Do we know when and where the first mermaid sighting took place?" asked correspondent Faith Salie.

"Keep to your oars, men! Those mermaids you see are not real!" CBS News

"We have a good idea," Ventura replied. "There was a goddess named Atargatis, a Syrian goddess, who was said to have killed, accidentally, the man she loved, and so punished herself by throwing herself into a lake and basically transformed herself to be half-fish."

Centuries later, the story of "The Little Mermaid" got its legs in Denmark. Written by Hans Christian Andersen, it tells of a young mermaid in love who trades her beautiful voice for legs – a story equally well-known for its Disney adaptation.

"What all of the mer-creatures have in common around the world are beautiful voices," said Ventura. "They have an enchantment to their voice that sucks people in."

But in many folk tales, those voices aren't used for good, like the sirens depicted in the movie "The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." "Once upon a time, they were quite feared," Ventura said. "Blackbeard was said to be so afraid of mermaids that he would order his crew to sail around mermaid-infested waters."

Salie asked, "Why do you think pirates so often saw mermaids?"

"Well, I think any time you have the combination of many months at sea with a bunch of stinky crew, total lack of nutrition (you've got scurvy, you're drinking rum because it's the only thing safe to drink, you can't drink the water), lots of sun, AND you haven't seen a woman for a while!"

And it's believed many reported mermaid sightings, including those said to be seen by Christopher Columbus, were actually manatees.

Ventura said, "These were creatures that fit the stories that they had heard about mermaids, and manatees do have perfect mermaid tails. And so they [yell], 'Mermaid offshore!'"

If seeing is believing, visit Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida and all your doubts will float away.

Come on in, the water's fine! CBS News

Amanda Luter is a Weeki Wachee Mermaid, part of a group that's been putting on underwater shows since 1947. "It's definitely a unique conversation starter to say, 'I'm a mermaid, I swim every day as a mermaid," she said. "Anybody who's been a mermaid will say this is the most unique experience of their life. It's given them some of the best memories. But it's also hard work."

Thanks to air hoses, these nymphs can stay submerged for a 30-minute performance.

Amanda said that she wanted to be a mermaid since she was a child: "What kid doesn't want to be a mermaid?"

Kids like Lydia Foss, and Elaina and Natalie Williams, have heard the siren call: They are at Weeki Wachee attending Mermaid Camp.

Mermaids for the day, at Weeki Wachee's Junior Mermaid Camp.  CBS News

When asked if they believe in mermaids, they all replied yes. "Mermaids are real, yes," said Lydia. 

"How do you know?" asked Salie. 

"There's proof right here!" laughed Natalie.

Ever the intrepid reporter, Salie decided to get to the bottom of this, and with a little help transforms into a mermaid herself!

Faith Salie hear the siren's call and becomes a mermaid herself.  CBS News

Varla Ventura said. "We believe what we want to believe, and we believe what we need to believe. And quite frankly, I think we all need to believe in mermaids! It just might save us."

For more info:

Story produced by Aria Shavelson.