Published on July 2nd, 20131
Profiles in Natural History: Georg Wilhelm Steller and the Ape in the Sea
By Stephen H. Clayborough
In the winter of 1740, Commander Captain Ivan Ivanovich Bering of the Russian Navy, originally Vitus Jonassen Bering of Horsens, Denmark, was feeling the pressure. It had been over ten years since his first expedition to the North Pacific had raised his status in St. Petersburg, and the demand for his proposed second expedition to set off was mounting. Subtle reminders from the Russian authorities, such as slashing his salary in half, no doubt helped drive him to action.
After all, a second expedition, specifically meant to determine the whereabouts of North America, had originally been his idea. But Vitus had grown older, and his health was not everything it could have been. The prospect of spending the next couple of years on cold little islands in the Pacific Arctic may not have had the same appeal to him as when he originally suggested it.
It’s reasonable to assume that it was Bering’s concerns about his own health that gave Georg Steller his second chance to join the expedition. After all, Georg Steller was a trained surgeon as well as a keen naturalist. Originally, Bering had discouraged the eager young Bavarian who’d worked his way across Siberia with his pockets full of letters of recommendation.
But now he changed his mind, so Steller joined the crew of the Saint Peter and swiftly started making himself unpopular. Steller found everything very substandard and primitive onboard, and was especially appalled at the incompetence displayed by the other naturalists. He also kept insisting on going ashore on the islands where the expedition stopped for water so that he could study and collect specimens of plants and animals. This made no sense to the crew at all, but they reluctantly agreed to take him ashore, giving him an ironic fanfare every time he clambered over the side.
Steller was not discouraged. He was undoubtedly one of the first genuinely scientific describers of nature. Having picked up the ‘new’ Linnean system of classification and knowing what to look for, he was describing new species in next to no time. I imagine him escaping into this ‘world’ of sketches and descriptions, a greatly satisfying world for any biologist, away from the jeers and eye-rolling of the ignorant seamen.
But Steller was also very much involved in the main thrust of the expedition; it was he who argued that a northeasterly course would be the most likely route to the Americas. Bering was all for heading straight east, but reluctantly accepted Steller’s suggestion after failing to reach land for a long period. They finally reached what today is called Kodiak Island, and first off the ship was Georg Steller, thus becoming the first European to set foot in Alaska.
Steller also identified Kodiak Island as being part of North America because of a bird, a small jay now known as ‘Steller’s Jay’. He remembered seeing a picture of a similar species from North America, and concluded therefore, correctly, that they had reached the continent of jaybirds. Bering’s crew greeted this information with a shrug, and threatened to leave without him if he didn’t get a move on. They were only there to fetch water.
Of the other animals described by Steller on this expedition, there are many standouts. The magnificent Steller’s Sea Eagle, the largest of all eagles, was first observed by Steller along the wild coast of Kamchatka. Those of us who remember the 1992 excellent BBC series In The Realms of the Russian Bear will recall the Steller’s Sea Eagle soaring over Kamchatka as one of the highlights.
There also exists a Steller’s Eider, and a Steller’s sea-lion, both dutifully (and well) described by Steller, though his first love was botany, like many naturalists at the time. Steller also gave his name to one of the strangest animals to have been encountered by modern man; the mighty Steller’s sea cow.
The ten ton Steller’s sea cows were the largest of all sirenians (the order comprising dugongs and manatees), reaching a length of 9 meters. They looked a bit like a cross between a whale and a seal; huge and blubbery, with flippers and a flat tail. The Steller’s sea cows were slow, sluggish animals that browsed on kelp, and only existed around a few islands along the coasts of Kamchatka and Alaska. They were incapable of submerging, and very easily caught.
A hail of musket balls, a rope round the tail, and a sea cow would could be quickly dragged ashore and butchered. The hides could be used, so could the guts and sinews. The meat wasn’t especially palatable, but better than the year-old salted pork the sea-crews had to put up with in those days. The reason this description is all in the past tense is, of course, because they were wiped out. The fur-hunters, traders and explorers that would come to follow Bering’s course sealed the fate of Steller’s sea cow.
It took no more than 27 years from discovery to extinction, proving that even pre-industrial man was quite capable of large-scale destruction. It’s was an ecological tragedy, as all man-made extinctions are. One could perhaps argue that the Steller’s sea cow was highly archaic animal, small in number, hanging on at the brink of extinction in an obscure corner of the world. But somehow this does not make its exit from that part of the world any less sad, or any more meaningful.
The sea ape
There is another animal described by Steller that has been the cause of much frustration and wild speculation ever since. This is what he, at a later date, wrote (in his work De Bestiis Marinis) about a strange encounter occurring somewhat to the south of Kodiak Island on the tenth of August, 1741:
“The animal was about two ells long. The head was like a dog’s head, the ears pointed and erect, and on the upper and lower lips on both side whiskers hung down which made him look almost like a Chinaman. The eyes were large. The body was longish, round and fat, but gradually became thinner toward the tail; the skin
was covered thickly with hair, gray on the back, reddish white on the belly, but in the water it seemed to be entirely red and cow-coloured. The tail, which was equipped with fins, was divided in two parts, the upper fin being two times as long as the lower one, just like on the sharks. However, I was not a little surprised that I could perceive neither forefeet as in marine amphibians nor fins in the place.”
This description, of what he called “The Sea Ape”, defies all biological categories. Mammals don’t have shark-like tails, nor does any known mammal lack forelimbs. Steller also noted the behavior of this mysterious chimera:
“It raised itself out of the water up to one third of its length, like a human being, and often remained in this position for several minutes. After it had observed us for about half an hour, it shot like an arrow under our ship and came up again on the other side, but passed under the ship again to reappear in its first position. It repeated this maneuver back and forth over thirty times.”
It was an ideal Kodak (or Instagram) opportunity, but unfortunately there was still a century to go before the camera appeared. Steller did sketch the Sea Ape, but the drawing has, rather frustratingly, disappeared. ‘Lost in transit’, so to speak.
We could, of course, consign Steller’s Sea Ape to the drawer marked “medieval map ornaments”, where it could languish alongside the mermaids and unipods, and other fantasies cooked up by brains that have been too long at sea. But Steller himself was, as mentioned, a highly scientfic observer of nature. He was accurate, meticulous, and even rather dry in his observations. He was certainly not a spinner of dubious sea-yarns.
Steller even wrote in the same book how much he disliked inaccurate and whimsical descriptions of nature. Every other creature or phenomenon Steller described has turned out to be real. So what about the sea ape? The most rational explanations to date are a) it was some kind of seal or b) it’s meant to be a joke. As for the less rational explanations, you can take your pick: unknown animal, creature from another dimension, a manifestation of the ‘unconscious’, some sort of aquatic alien, etc. Steller’s Sea Ape seems destined to remain an enigma, albeit a rather charming one. My dachshund peeping at me over the edge of the bed at 4 a.m. usually brings it to mind.
The discovery of Alaska was followed by great hardship. Scurvy was breaking out among the crew, and Captain Bering, not feeling too good himself, was keen to bring the Saint Peter back to Kamchatka. Instead, the ship was partially wrecked by storms, and the crew found themselves marooned for the winter on an inhospitable rocky piece of real estate many miles from anywhere. Steller described it as “..a succession of barren cliffs and mountains joined one to the other…they stand aloft from the sea like a single rock”. Vitus Bering died on this island, so it was named Bering Island. The strait between the tips of Siberia and Alaska were later also named in his honour.
It was on Bering Island that Steller proved his worth. He saw to it that the stranded crew were provided with food and water; the food being mainly the meat from numerous sea-otters, that could be given the chop when they rested ashore. Humans are one of the few mammals with a dysfunctional gene for the production of vitamin C, hence the fact that we get scurvy if deprived of this vitamin from outer sources.
Sea otters have a working version of this gene, so they make their own vitamin C continuously. It is not a vitamin that stores well in the body, but fresh otter meat will contain traces. Steller had no precise knowledge of antiscorbutics, but the fresh otter meat, along with an assortment of lichens and plants he added, seemed to alleviate the scurvy somewhat. The otter pelts were stored for future sale on the Chinese market; a potential fortune for the survivors.
On Bering Island the wrecked crew was constantly plagued by the many foxes, snapping at the men and stealing everything they could find, including items clearly of no use to a fox. According to Steller’s account, he slew sixty of them with an axe in the course of one day, but that this merely served to encourage the other foxes. Steller protested strongly, however, when the increasingly frustrated crewmen took to torturing the foxes. An admirable position to take, considering the circumstances.
We’d like to think that during the hard winter on Bering Island our hero finally won some respect among the men, but there’s Hollywood movie style ‘winning respect’, and then there’s reality. We’ll never really know; but the next spring, Steller and the remaining crew did manage to nail together a makeshift craft from the remains of the Saint Peter. They flatly refused to bring any of his collection along, allowing him only the dried palate of a sea cow to show for his year in the ice.
The return of the makeshift ship set off a rush of new expeditions to Alaska, and the establishment of a permanent Russian presence in the area. It was the fur trade that brought them; the enormous numbers of easily killed sea otter. Later, the Russian furriers discovered it was easier to have the native Alaskans do the sea otter killing for them. Exploitation followed, by means of threats, false promises and low quality alcohol. And by the twentieth century, the enormously numbers of sea otters Steller had seen had become so rare they were considered to be extinct.
A great scientist
We can recognize the scientific pioneer in Steller. There’s a romantic element here, to be sure, but what we see is a man of science and reason, unafraid to state his opinions, and also a humanitarian appalled by the cruelty and exploitation he saw around him. His later life saw much disappointment and failure; his estranged wife remained in St. Petersburg, selling first his furniture and then later his books in order to make ends meet.
He struggled to find a publisher for his own book, De bestiis marinis, a description of the sea-creatures encountered in the North Pacific. The new tsarina, Elisabeth, wasn’t too keen on the numerous foreigners taking credit for Russian achievements, so fame and fortune were out of the question. Steller’s final years were spent in the Far East, trying his hand at teaching, and somewhat in the shadow of the bottle.
Russian authorities came to suspect his loyalty, as he gave voice to the grief of the native Kamchaktans. It was while en route westwards across Siberia to defend himself against accusations of fomenting native rebellion, that Steller finally succumbed. Travelling in an open sleigh across icy wastes, he fell ill and feverish. The drivers then left him lying there in the open while they retreated to a local tavern to make merry. Even after death, Steller was to suffer further indignities, being exhumed by robbers who wanted the red cloak he’d been buried in. His naked corpse was found discarded in a snowdrift.
One can wonder if he in those many dark moments before death didn’t regret leaving Bavaria in the first place. But if Steller had stayed in Bavaria and lived an obscure, uneventful, albeit much longer, life as a clerk or schoolteacher, he might have regretted never having seen the wonders of the ice, or the romantic scientific thrill of naming exciting new species, or the adventures and the hardship, or being the first European to set foot in that far-off land of Alaska.
Georg Wilhelm Steller was born in 1709, and died in 1746.
*Cover photo by Linda, Steller’s Jay photo by Shawn McCready, Steller’s Eider photo by Omar Runolfsson, group photo of female Steller’s Eider by USFWS Endangered Species, Eider pair photo by USFWS Endangered Species.