I was writing a passage in SIRENS a couple days ago and was reminded of this. About a year and a half ago, one of my best friends and I settled on my couch with a bottle of white wine (an important detail) to watch the Animal Planet Documentary, Mermaid: The Body Found. We kind of stumbled upon the show. She was supposed to do a mud run that day, but it got cancelled. Will and I were on our way to the National Zoo, so she joined us. Exhausted from the long, uphill return walk, we got some sauvignon blanc at the corner store and decided to be lazy. John took Will to the park and we cracked open the bottle. We’d never heard of the documentary before, but of course, I was dying to watch it. And you don’t even have to be a mermaid lover to be intrigued by the title.
As the documentary unraveled my jaw dropped slowly. It tells a story of a scientific team’s investigative efforts to uncover the source behind mysterious underwater recordings of an unidentified marine body. Marine biologists that formerly worked for NOAA and other esteemed marine organizations basically weave this complex conspiracy theory about how the government has been aware of these, ahem, mermaids but due to military naval operations that have caused damage to the sea and the species, they have kept it quiet. It was an exposé.
It was really believable (seriously!)… look at this picture. See those eyes lurking in the dark recesses of the water?
And there’s the very trustworthy and knowledgeable Marine Biologist in the center who gives testimony to what that being is (a mermaid). But there were two reasons for my jaw dropping.
- They were describing a theory that I had cooked up in my head for my book, SIRENS. I couldn’t believe it. (My friend must have endured at least fifty of these phrases; “What?!”, “That’s what I said!!”, “No!”, “Oh. My. God.” I got a little worked up.) The show traces the evolution of these aquatic people back to a diverging branch on the tree of human evolution. They(we) even had such details as the fact that these originally seaside dwellers began to hunt and avoid predators by going deeper and deeper into the sea. Over millions of years the species evolved to withstand water pressure and breathe underwater. This is exactly what I had come up with having never seen or heard of this show.
- Mermaids were real! They existed!!
So remember the wine I mentioned? This was a looong documentary… and the sauvignon blanc was flowing. The intoxication, mixed with some deep desire for it to be true, brought me springing from the couch as the show ended, exclaiming in yips that, oh my god, mermaids were real. I declared that I was immediately getting certified for scuba diving, and I was going to see one of these mermaids with my very own eyes if it was the last thing I ever did. I think I was actually jumping up and down. My friend – I will let her remain anonymous – was almost equally elated that mermaids existed.
Then we sobered up. I did some research. To my deep dismay, I found that this show was not a documentary, but docufiction.
FICTION? (Yes, I knew this was true on some level all along. But it was so fun to believe, if only for a few hours). My excitement deflated like a balloon.
What’s interesting about this show is that it really caused a craze! Tons and tons of people watched it, and believed it. And I bet most of them weren’t even under the influence! Apparently NOAA was getting calls left and right about hiding mermaid bodies, and Animal Planet had to come out and explain themselves. They were criticized for hiding the fact that this was fiction. Because it seemed SO REAL people!!!
David Shiffman wrote an article in SLATE about the phenomenon. Here’s an excerpt.
This week, Animal Planet aired two fake documentaries claiming to show scientific evidence of mermaids. I say “fake documentaries” because that’s exactly what The Body Found and The New Evidence are. The “scientists” interviewed in the show are actors, and there’s a brief disclaimer during the end credits. However, the Twitter conversation surrounding the show (#Mermaids) reveals that many viewers are unaware that the show isn’t real. (Sample Tweets: “After watching the documentary #Mermaids the body found … I believe there are mermaids!!!” and “90% of the ocean is unexplored and you’re telling me #mermaids don’t exist”—which has been retweeted more than 800 times.) It is, after all, airing on a network that claims to focus on educating viewers about the natural world. “The Body Found” was rightfully described “the rotting carcass of science television,” and I was shocked to see Animal Planet air a sequel.
As a marine biologist, I can tell you unequivocally that despite millennia of humans exploring the ocean, no credible evidence of the existence of mermaids has ever been found. Some claim that manatees are the source of the legend, but you’d have to be at sea an awfully long time to think that a manatee is a beautiful woman. Sure, new species are discovered all the time, but while a new species of bird or insect is fascinating, it doesn’t mean “anything is possible,” and it is certainly not equivalent to finding a group of talking, thinking humanoids with fish tails covering half of their bodies. The confusion generated by “The Body Found” got to be so significant that the United States government issued an official statement on the matter.
What a wet blanket you are, Shiffman. Anyway, please don’t think less me for believing in mermaids for an hour. It was really, really fun.