It was meant to be a voyage of discovery, and in that regard, it achieved its goal. But it also proved to be a voyage that brought with it troubles, death, and disasters. The effects of some of these are still being felt until today.
In the late 1740s, the Danish navigator Vitus Jonasen Bering, sailing for Russia, explored northeastern Siberia and the far north Pacific Ocean. During a previous journey, he had concluded that water did separate Asia from North America, but not everyone was satisfied with his results. So again he set out, and in the course of his travels, he came to Alaska (and is thus credited as being the discoverer of the Americans from the East).
But upon the return leg of this trip, Bering became quite ill. Furthermore, his ship became lost in the fog. Then he and his crew became shipwrecked on one of what are now called the Komandorskie (Commander) Islands.
One of the other men aboard this expedition was the German physician and naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller. During the nine months of being marooned, Steller described much of what they saw. And what wonders there were!
While the island itself was void of trees and people, it was surrounded by birds, sea otters and large marine mammals.
Make that, “very large.” There were giant sirenians or sea cows, more like dugongs of the Indo-Pacific than the manatees of Florida, but HUGE! Some were over 25 feet in length and weighed an estimated 22,000 pounds! Herds of these sirenians hung around the mouths of rivers and other shallow water areas. Although they lacked teeth, they grazed almost constantly on kelp and other marine plants.
Despite their tremendous size, these sea cows were gentle giants. There was a marooned shipload of hungry men and tons upon tons of fresh meat just floating about in the shallow water, so eventually the crew began to harvest some of the sea cows for food. But no matter how many they killed, the sea cows remained docile and unafraid.
Stellar also saw other new and marvelous marine mammals in the waters around their temporary island home. There were sea lions, and while not nearly as big as the sea cows, they were still among the largest in the world, with males reaching over 10 feet long and 2,200 pounds. These large males with their ragged fur around their upper bodies, plus their aggressive behavior made them far more lion-like than other seas lions.
Within a month of being stranded on the bleak island, Bering died. The harsh winter and conditions eventually took its toll on many others of the crew. Finally, the 46 men of the original 77 that remained were able to construct a smaller boat out of the remnants of their former vessel and sail to safety. When they returned to their homelands, they took with them tales of their adventures and the marvels they had seen.
Including all those wonderful sea mammals. Within quick succession, sea otter hunters, sealers, and other fortune seekers sought out the desolate island and began to harvest the bounty that was seemingly there just for the taking.
Almost immediately, the numbers of sea cows began to plummet. By 1768, just 27 years after its discovery, the giant sea cow was extinct! However, even before that happened, Steller himself died, so not only did a fascinating species disappear, but also many details of its natural history were lost.
The sea lions fared somewhat better, but have still suffered at the hands of hunters and fur traders. Added to this was the impression among commercial fishermen that these mammals were damaging their catches. For a number of years, these sea lions were killed for bounty. It is figured that previously, there were hundreds of thousands of individuals. By the end of the twentieth century, there were probably only about 70,000 left. In parts of their range, they have come under the Endangered Species designation.
The abundance of sea otters was exploited to the point that they were quickly gone from the Komandorskies. But there were more to be found along the coast of the Eastern Pacific, including California, and it wasn’t long before the exploitation expanded. The ecological consequences of that hunting are still being investigated and debated.
Today the island where Bering was shipwreck and died can be found on modern maps as “Bering Island”. The “Bering Sea” and “Bering Straights” were also named in his honor.
The sea lion is sometimes referred to as Northern Sea Lions, but it is more commonly referred to as Steller’s Sea Lion (Eumetopias jubata). It can be found to this day from Hokkaido, Japan and the Kurile Islands to the California Channel Islands, with a few breeding as far south as San Miguel Island. A famous rookery is found on Año Nuevo Island, San Mateo County, California.
The only cold water sirenian known to modern man was given the name “Steller’s Sea Cow” (Hydrodamalis gigas). (In prehistoric times, it or closely related species ranged as throughout the Pacific, even along the coast of California.) Sadly, though, only a few bones and some sketchy descriptions are all that are left.