Friday, 22 February 2013

The Folorn Fate of the Steller's Sea-Cow

               Thirty miles off the eastern coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula lie the Commander Islands, the largest of which, at about sixty miles long and nine miles wide, is Bering Island. It is named after the Russian explorer Vitus Bering, who led two expeditions off Kamchatka that mapped vast, previously unexplored, areas of the northern Pacific Ocean. The naturalist on the second expedition was Georg Wilhelm Steller, a German zoologist, botanist and physician, who joined Bering at Okhotsk in March 1740. 

Two ships, the St Peter and St Paul departed for Kamchatka in September of the same year, and travelled eastwards until they sighted Alaska in 1741, and landed on or near Kayak Island, making them the first Europeans to land on the North-west coast of America. Bad weather had separated the ships and even worse conditions drove Bering and Steller, on board the St Peter, back towards the Russian mainland. 

The conditions on the voyage home were truly horrific and the St Peter limped along the Aleutians until it made landfall on the larger of the Commander Islands, which was mistakenly thought to be mainland Kamchatka. Stranded there, twenty-eight men died of scurvy (Bering also died and for many years it was believed that he, too, had succumbed to scurvy but modern research has shown that it is almost certain that he died from heart failure), Steller tried to get the crew to eat leaves and berries to stave off the scurvy but his attempts were rejected by the officers and only Steller and his assistant were even slightly free from the effects of scurvy. In spite of the horrendous conditions, Steller continued to record his observations of the wildlife he saw and many species were subsequently named for him, including a jay, an eider duck, a sea-lion, an otter and a sea-eagle. 

Steller's Sea-Cow

However, Steller’s name is indelibly associated with another creature – Steller’s Sea-Cow. With the exception of the Arctic Fox, the higher fauna of the Commander Islands are aquatic mammals and the most substantial of these was the Sea-Cow, a species related to the manatee and the dugong, but far, far larger than these southern cousins and, until Steller made his observations, an unknown animal. Steller’s Sea-Cow grew up to thirty feet in length and ten tons in weight and lived in herds in the marine shallows, where it browsed incessantly on seaweed, raising its head above the surface every four or five minutes to breathe. 

Steller's drawing of the Sea-Cow

They were slow-moving beasts, very docile and inoffensive, with inch-thick, almost armour-like, dark grey-brown skin (‘almost impervious to an ax or to the point of a hook’, as Steller wrote), with front flippers not unlike a seal’s that ended with something like a claw or blunt horse's hoof, the underside of which were covered with coarse, brush-like bristles, about half an inch in length. These arm-like limbs were used to swim in water, to propel the animal along the bottom of the sea, to climb and pull itself over rocks, to dig and uproot seaweed, and to embrace their partners during mating. 

Steller's Sea-Cow - drawing

Steller’s description of the exterior and interior of the Sea-Cow is exceptionally detailed and includes an account of how easy it is to hunt the beasts, which are usually so intent on feeding that a boat or swimmer can easily approach them. They were harpooned or speared with barbed hooks and it could take thirty or forty men to pull the body ashore but Steller records that if an animal was hooked, the rest of the herd would come to its assistance and try to overturn the boat or break the ropes with the bulk of their bodies. The flesh tasted like good beef and was, according to Steller ‘excellent’, that of the calves like veal or lard, and if salted it was not unlike corned beef. Steller says that there are such great numbers of these animals around the Commander Islands ‘… they would suffice to support all the inhabitants of Kamchatka’. 

Steller's Sea-Cow skeleton

And that was the problem. After the remnants of the St Peter were fashioned into a make-shift ship and the remainder of its crew eventually made their way back to the mainland, the reports were published and other ships followed the descriptions therein and went in search of furs of the Arctic foxes, fur seals, sea-otters and sea-lions. The crews of these vessels took full advantage of the plentiful supplies of the delicious Sea-Cows, stocking their holds with meat for their voyages. It was also found that the sub-cutaneous fat could be rendered into a fine oil that burned without smoke or offensive smell, and did not go off in warmer weather; the hides of the animals were used to cover boats. 

Contrary to Steller’s description, the population of the Sea-Cows was already quite low, to the point of endangerment, as other environmental effects were causing a rapid decline in numbers but the impact of the new hunters was catastrophic. Within thirteen years of their discovery, the Steller’s Sea-Cow had been hunted to extinction. 

A E Norderskiold - Voyage of the Vega

Adolf Nordenskiöld, in his Voyage of the Vega, wrote that the Sea-Cow had been seen in the waters of the nearby island of Attu as late as 1780, but this is disputed as he was basing his information on reports from Aleutian natives, who used terms that they also used to describe certain species of toothed whales. 

I discovered this animal and all I got was this lousy stamp.

Steller is barely remember these days, other than through the creatures that carry his name, whereas Mr Bering managed, posthumously, to have an island, a sea, a strait, a land-bridge and a glacier named after him (and the Commander Islands are named in recognition of his naval rank). I suspect that there may be a moral in this, somewhere, but I’m blowed if I can think what it could be.

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