Reconstructing the Steller’s Sea Cow

reconstructing the Steller's sea cow

A brief story of the Steller’s Sea Cow 

The world of the Steller’s sea cow is something we only know from the written descriptions of a castaway.

A Scientist on an expedition

Our hero, and part-villain, Georg Steller was a German scientist on a Russian  expedition to the western coast of north America. They would be the first westerners to this part of the Americas. Explorers from the east coast were still far far away. 

The two ships which sailed from the Kamchatka Peninsula were named after saints. One named Peter and the other named Paul. They became separated in the mid-pacific, but both finally made it to the American mainland, although they were never to meet.  

Shipwrecked

The Commander, after whom the Commander Islands in the north Pacific are named was a Dane called Vitus Bering. The Bering Strait is named after him too. They had about the worst time imaginable and, desperately trying to get back to Kamchatka, were shipwrecked. The ship wreck occurred agonisingly slowly, on what is now known as Bering Island in November 1741.

Location of Bering island
Location of Bering Island

Bering himself is still there, he died in the dunes on December 8th from scurvy. The remaining crew salvaged what they could of the St Peter and began building another ship. It took them until August 12th the following year. It was during this time that Steller did his job and studied the wildlife of the Island. Steller’s jay, Steller’s eider, Steller’s sea lion, Steller’s sea eagle are all named after him from this expedition. 

An Easy Catch!

Two species really stand out though. Georg was the only European naturalist to ever see a living spectacled cormorant. The bird probably saved the remaining men’s lives. Although other prey was available, they were weak and the flightless cormorants were easy to catch. A hundred years later, the spectacled cormorant was extinct.

The second species was called manatee by Georg. He was the only scientist ever to see one but what a scientist he was and what an opportunity he had. These magnificent beasts, lived and bred in the bay right outside the door of his hut. He lived with them for about 9 months, recording the details of what he saw. He measured a dead specimen on the beach, complaining in his notes that the crew had no time or inclination to help him and arctic foxes kept stealing his equipment. 

The Magnificent Sea Cow

The animal he described is known today as Steller’s Sea Cow. The last claim of a sighting is one killed in 1768 just 27 years after the first. Georg never made it home. He died in Siberia in 1746 on his way to defend himself against an accusation by the Russian authorities. The accusation was that he had illegally freed some native Kamchatkans from imprisonment.

However his notes from the expedition were published. These notes partly lead to the flood of fur traders, explorers and other travellers who ravaged Bering Island. They wiped out the spectacled cormorant and Steller’s sea cow. The great beasts were loaded into ships as food for long voyages ahead. 

A Reconstruction

We thought that this amazing animal deserved remembering so, a couple of years ago, I downloaded Georg’s notes. On top of a tracing of a skeleton, I reconstructed the sea cow according to his own measurements and descriptions.  

A reconstruction of the Steller's sea cow
Reconstructing the magnificent Steller’s Sea Cow

In the process I fell a little bit in love with this beautiful creature. From Steller’s description of how the sea cow lived, I reconstructed their world, He stated that sea cows lived in family groups and protected each other. They spent much of their time grazing sea weeds in the shallows and looked from a distance like upturned boats with half their body always out of the water.

The world of the sea cow
The world of the sea cow

 Georg Steller is depicted walking in the background of the scene. I tried very hard to put myself in the moment that he found himself, studying sea cows; completely unaware that he would be the only person ever to do so.

A Sea Cow T-shirt

It was a difficult decision deciding on the image to go onto a T-shirt. We wanted the T-shirt to be a reminder to all who see it that extinction is real. These beautiful creatures became extinct at the hands of humans! So having reconstructed the face I decided that the face-on view was the image to go with.

reconstructing the sea cow
reconstructing the sea cow face

The Steller’s Sea Cow T-shirt is available for you to wear with pride

Steller's Sea Cow T-shirt
Steller’s sea cow T-shirt

Sea Cow Facts 

  1. Steller’s sea cow was the largest of all the sea cows (Sirenia) which include 3 species of manatee (with rounded tails) and the dugong with a whale-like tail. 
  2. Steller’s sea cow was most closely related to the dugong 
  3. It was the only non-tropical sea cow living in the cold waters of the north Pacific on the same latitude as the UK 
  4. At 8 or more metres long it was about twice the size of any other sea cow and equal in length to an orca or a minke whale 
  5. Unlike all whales and dolphins which eat other animals, sea cows, dugongs and manatees are vegetarians 
  6. Steller’s sea cow was probably a similar weight to an African elephant (6000kg) and we’ll probably never know which was the World’s heaviest vegetarian 
  7. A Steller’s sea cow killed by the crew of the St Peter fed the 46 men for 2 weeks. 
  8. Georg said that sea cows… “have an uncommon love for one another, extending so far that, when hooked, all the others tried to save it.”  
  9. It’s not all doom and gloom being shipwrecked. Describing sea cow intestines, George said; “If only a very slight aperture is made with the point of a knife, the liquid excrement (a ridiculous thing to behold) would squirt out violently like blood from a ruptured vein, and often the face of a spectator would be drenched by this springing fountain whenever someone opened a canal upon his neighbour opposite, for a joke.” 
  10. Steller’s sea cows had no teeth. They had evolved special plates in their mouth, like millstones, to mash kelp. 

And the final word goes to Georg Steller

“As long as things escape us and perish unknown with our consent, and through our silence are counted as fabulous – things which may be seen with little labour in the very land where we, with all our inquisitiveness, live – it is not strange these things, which we are prevented from observing, by the great sea that lies between, have remained to the present time unknown and unexplored.” 

Georg Steller

For the sea cow’s sake, and the spectacled cormorant, I wish it had stayed that way. 

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