Our Beautiful World
To the crew of Vitus Bering's ship St. Peter, shipwrecked off the coast of Kamchatka in early November
1741, the huge, easily-hunted sea cow was a godsend that helped most of them to survive and return home.
Within 3 decades, though, their countrymen had hunted sea cows to extinction.
Steller's sea cows, Rhytina stelleri, were the largest, and the only cold-water members of the scientific
order Sirenia, to which manatees and dugongs also belong. They look rather like whales or sea lions.
Feeding on sea grasses (in the case of the Steller's sea cow, primarily kelp), they are the only aquatic
herbivorous mammals. Historically, about 1,500 - 2,000 members of the species known taxonomically
as Hydrodamalis gigas ("giant sea calf") lived in the shallow waters off the coasts of Alaska and the
Russian Far East, centred in the Commander Islands. Although they undoubtedly faced some hunting
pressure from the Aleut and Eskimos, both of whom were expert whalers, their population was
probably quite stable.
From "The Steller's Sea Cow" by Murray Lundberg , Explore North
Illustration by Sofron Chitrow, Master on the St. Peter,
(after a sketch by Sven Waxell), probably the most authentic drawing of an eye witness.
This picture was found on the excellent pages at http://www.hans-rothauscher.de/steller/steller.htm
A small population of sea cows lived in the arctic waters around Bering Island and nearby Copper Island.
Far larger than the largest male walrus, Steller's sea cows measured up to 25 feet long and 22 feet around.
A single animal weighed up to 8,800 pounds. A sea cow looked somewhat like a large seal, but had two
stout forelimbs and a whale-like tail.
According to Steller's description, "The animal never comes out on shore, but always lives in the water.
Its skin is black and thick, like the bark of an old oak..., its head in proportion to the body is small...,
it has no teeth, but only two flat white bone - one above, the other below." These animals fed on a variety
of kelp. Wherever sea cows had been feeding, heaps of stalks and roots of kelp were washed ashore.
The population of sea cows was likely small when Steller first described the giant creatures.
Some scientists think the entire population included fewer than 2,000 animals, all of which lived around
Bering and Copper islands. This small population was wiped out quickly by the sailors, seal hunters,
and fur traders that followed Vitus Bering's route past the islands to Alaska. These people killed the cows
primarily for food and their skins, which were used to make boats.
As a result of unlimited killing,the Steller's sea cow population declined sharply. In 1768, just 27 years
after Steller first described the sea cow, the species became extinct. Today, the sea cow seems an almost
imaginary creature, but Steller's descriptions and a few intact skeletons and pieces of skin, preserved in
museums, prove that this amazing animal lived in the Bering Sea just over 200 years ago.
Based upon "Alaska Species Now Extinct", Alaska Department of Fish and Game - Wildlife Conservation
Steller's own story
Through Steller's observation and anatomical study a living portrait of the "sea cow", whom no scientist
would ever see again, were written down. It was a herbivorous mammal of prodigious size,
it grew up to 9 meters (30 feet) long and weighed from 3 to 4 tons; but despite its rough outer skin,
which resembled "the bark of an old oak", it seemed to lead the most vulnerable of lives.
"Entire families keep together, " noted Steller in his attentive tribute,
the male with the female, one grown offspring and a little , tender one. To me they appear to be monogamous. They bring forth their young at all seasons, generally however in autumn,
judging from the many new-born seen at that timne. Nor have I ever seen more than one
calf about each cow.
They eat incessantly, and because of their enormoous voracity keep their head always under
water with but slight concern for their life and security, so that one may påass in the very midst
of them in a boat...
With food near the camp grown scarce, the men fixed their hungry eyes upon them as they moved in and out along the coast "browsing on seaweed witgh the flowing and ebbing tides." By means of a large iron harpoon, attached to a long, thick rope held by thirty men on shore, the sea cow, hooked from the longboat, was pulled laboriously in. Sometimes members of the herd, hastening to its aid,
tried to upset the boat with their backs, while others pressed down the rope and endeavored to
break it, or strove to remove the hook from the wound in the back by blows of their tail. ..
It is a most remarkable proof of their conjugal affection that the male, after having tried with all his might, althoughn in vain, to free the female caughht by the hook, and in spite of the beating we ga ve himn, nevertheless followed her to the shore, and sev eral times, even after she was dead, shot unexpectedly up to her side like a speeding arrow. Early next morning, when we came to cut up the meat and bring it to the dugout, we found the male again standing by the female, and the same I observ ed once more on the third day when I went there by myself for the sole purpose of examining the intestines.
From Steller's own report, on July 12, 1742.
Based on the book "East of the Sun", by Benson Bobrick.