Nearly every sea culture has tales of lovely maidens who propel through the ocean with fish-like tails. The first known legend dates back to Assyria in about 1,000 BC. When a goddess named Atargatis accidentally killed her mortal lover, she threw herself into a lake in despair, prompting the gods to turn her feet into fins so that she could not drown. As recently as the 2004 tsunami, islanders have claimed that dead mermaids have washed upon their shores. (For some reason, the photos released are inevitably of a monkey hacked in half with a sewed-on tail.) A few cultures believe mermaids help steer ships from harm's way, but most claim they are seductresses who - like the Sirens of myth - lure sailors into the water with their songs and then sink their ships. European legends hold that mermaids can grant wishes, while the Japanese say that eating their flesh can make you immortal. (Would they be served sashimi-style, or as a deep-fried tempura?)
One place where mermaids are thought to be alive and well is the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Locals say that if you rise early enough, you can sometimes catch them washing their golden locks on the rocks of Whale Point, an old swimming hole.
Bahamian children believe that their parents have seen this, and they will too someday. But if your own sunrise outing is in vain, worry not: mermaid art abounds. You can buy mermaid jewelry, pottery, T-shirts, doorstops, and figurines made of everything from shells to banana leaves. (Interestingly enough, these representations almost always resemble Daryl Hannah on “Splash,” with long, curly blonde hair, blue eyes, and cleavage. They are never black, like the majority of Bahamians.)
Or, you could opt to become a mermaid yourself.
“There is little to do here but be in the water, and you can swim and walk around naked all day because there is absolutely no one to see you, so it's a little like being a mermaid,” says Karla Cosgriff, an American who grew up on the island and flies back regularly on business. “There are no signs here either, so finding a good beach is all about self-discovery.”
It is certainly worth the effort: Eleuthera's beaches (in particular, Harbour Island) have crystalline waters filled with colorful reefs, eagle rays, octopus, and dolphins. Whales migrate through here annually. After a long day of playing in the ocean, you can pass the night at Elvina's in Gregory Town, where locals gather every Tuesday and Friday night to sing along to live SoCa, or Southern Caribbean, music. Ask the old-timers about their own mermaid encounters; you'll hear some great stories.
Stephanie Elizondo Griest is the author of “100 Places Every Woman Should Go” (Travelers' Tales, 2007) and “Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana” (Villard/Random House, 2004). Visit her web site at www.aroundthebloc.com.
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