Dire Straits

Today’s post marks the end of Old Dead White Naturalist Guy Week. I hope you’ve had as much fun as I have! I believe I could start another blog just honoring naturalists and explorers, if it weren’t for the fact that some of the best explorers were among the most humble, or unlucky, and left no portraits or travelogues. Such is the case of Georg Wilhelm Steller and his harrowing story of survival in the Arctic.

Steller was a German naturalist living in Russia in the first half of the 18th century. He became a second-hand expert in the fauna of Siberia when he married the widow of Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt, a colleague and fellow German naturalist expat, whose notes from his Siberian expeditions he acquired in the deal. Siberia had been explored by so few scientists at the time that simply owning Messerschmidt’s papers made Steller the top authority on the subject. So when Captain Commander Vitus Bering, he of the Sea and the Strait, took on an expedition to Kamchatka, it of the Risk board, Steller was tapped to be his naturalist.

The expedition reached Kamchatka by land, then set sail in two ships, the St. Peter and the St. Paul, for North America. Steller maintained an uneasy relationship with the ship’s crew, largely made of illiterate roughnecks who wouldn’t listen to the smartypants egghead when he told them that For crying out loud, Alaska is north, you morons. NORTH! After all, they were lost, and beginning to run out of provisions. When the sailors finally took Steller’s navigational advice, they indeed found Alaska, and became the first Europeans to set foot on what would become our 49th State. Though they spent only 3 days there, Steller was able to describe an incredible number of species new to science, including the Steller’s Jay and the sea otter.

Capt. Bering, having planted Russia’s flag, decided it was time to head home, and ordered the ships to head for the island of Bolshya Zemlya. The St. Paul stayed on course, but the St. Peter got lost and damaged in a storm and was shipwrecked on a frigid, windswept island, unable to return. Bering and Steller were aboard the St. Peter.


Like Gilligan’s Island, except there are no coconuts and it’s -40 degrees F.

What is a naturalist to do when he is marooned on an Arctic island, surrounded by stubborn idiots, starving as foxes steal their remaining food and a deadly winter approaches from the South? He keeps on Naturalizing! It turns out that being the only one aboard who knows about plants and animals is handy when it comes to wilderness survival. Previously scorned by the sailors, Steller assumed leadership over the miserable expedition. He taught the freezing crew how to trap animals for their pelts. When the crew started dying of scurvy, Steller collected plants to boil for Vitamin C. He hunted the local animals for food, and scientifically described them as well: the Steller’s Sea Lion, the Northern Fur Seal, the Steller’s Eider, and the Steller’s Sea Eagle, the heaviest eagle in the world. Of all the plants and animals Steller discovered on that frozen rock, one gained its fame for being as unlucky as its discoverer: the Steller’s Sea Cow.

It was huge, about 30 feet long, much larger than any other manatee or dugong. It had a disproportionately tiny head for its 10-ton bulk. It swam slowly and was unable to fully submerge, executing a continuous dead man’s float as it munched placidly on the kelp beds that surrounded the island. It tasted of beef, and its blubber reminded the sailors of butter. The Steller’s sea cow was, in short, the perfect prey.


Georg Wilhelm Steller: No Ernst Haeckel.

What Steller had discovered was the last refuge of this gigantic dugong. The fossil record shows that the Steller’s sea cow was once widespread up and down the Pacific rim, from Japan to California. By the time Steller found them, they were absent anywhere humans lived. Probably only 1,500 survived at the time, out on those uninhabited islands in the freezing Bering Sea. As with the Woolly Mammoths of Wrangel Island, which survived their species’ extinction until about 3,700 years ago, Kamchatka was a haven for Arctic animals being hunted by humanity. It is a violent land that protects peaceable creatures.

Dugongs, as I’ve noted before, are part of the fantastic super-order Afrotheria, which includes the elephants, the aardvarks, and other oddballs. In fact, they are so recently separated from its land-living relatives that they still bear fingernails on their flippers. They have no teeth, but two bony plates to grind up their diet of seaweed. Slow, friendly, and dimwitted, their only defense is their great size. Excepting parasites, their only predators are animals large enough to take a bite out of them, such as orcas and great white sharks. (Fun fact: How do you tell a dugong from a manatee? Look at the tail. A manatee’s is a round paddle, while a dugong’s is fluked like a dolphin’s. See Steller’s illustration!) The Sirenia order to which manatees and dugongs belong famously derives its name from humanity’s long history of mistaking them for mermaids. How a several-ton, sofa-shaped, mustachioed mammal could be mistaken for a seductive water nymph is beyond me, and can only be attributed to heroic quantities of desperation and grog. But cultures going back to the ancient Egyptians have considered dugongs half-human, and many a young dugong found itself in a circus sideshow as a Feegee Mermaid. I suppose there is something irresistible about a dugong.


So sexy.

In the case of the Steller’s sea cow, it was an irresistible food source. Half of the crew of the St. Peter died that winter, including Captain Commander Bering. (The lonely island was named Bering Island, and its chain the Commander Islands.) But thanks to Steller’s understanding of botany and zoology, it was only half. The ship’s crew managed to build a new ship from parts of the old one by the following August, and escaped back to the mainland. Steller spent four more years in Siberia, continuing to document the animals and plants of the region. Ironically, he died on the train back to St. Petersburg, never having published the story of his exile on Bering Island, or even a single scientific paper. The Steller’s sea cow, meanwhile, was driven extinct within only 27 years of its discovery, by Russians following Bering’s route to Alaska.

It was a voyage born under a bad moon for everyone involved: Steller, Bering, the sailors, and the sea cow. A gentle species sheltered by Arctic ice storms, the sea cow was a casualty of human exploration, and, in a way, that supreme courage that keeps us exploring places where we’ve previously been afraid to tread. It seems that the further we venture, the more damage we’re likely to do; the more species we meet, the more we take as collateral. As human exploration continues into the final frontiers of Earth — the forest canopy, the ocean floor, the microcosmos — it’s worth considering the parable of the Steller’s sea cow. Whatever we can know, we can destroy. We cannot stop exploring, but we must consider the price. The mysteries of the world call to us like siren song, but in our lust-struck madness, we must take care not to silence the sirens forever.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

4 responses to “Dire Straits

  • jen rinaldi

    This whole week has been fascinating posts–let’s hear it for the curious whack-jobs (not unlike poets, methinks) :0) Never a gushy “coochie-coochie-coo” kind of chick, I am nonetheless overwhelmed by the cuteness of the sea otter…which I suppose relates to the LOLcats post next! :0)

  • quantumbiologist

    Thanks! And yes, it does.

    It’s often hard for me to choose an animal for a post, particularly when it comes to the naturalists. The Amazon river dolphin/Humboldt post was almost about piranhas, and the Platypus/Waterton post was going to be about giant anteaters up until the last minute. This post was almost about sea otters. I love them so. If reincarnation is real, I’d like to return as a sea otter, lounging in his kelp bed.

  • The Ninja

    ;;. it just makes me so mad! how stupid were those people?! did they not see that they were destroying something? did they not notice that the dugongs were getting harder and harder to find?!

    • quantumbiologist

      Simply put: there was no such thing as “conservation” then. If you had tried to explain the concept of “extinction” to people in that era, and reason why that was a bad thing, they would have looked at you cross-eyed. The Earth was there for our use, and nothing ever truly went extinct, because that would mean that God had made a mistake. So the 18th century was absolutely full of cryptids… a Russian boat passing over the Bering Sea the year after the sea cow went extinct would just have assumed all the sea cows were hiding somewhere else.

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