Category Archives: Sirenia

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.

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