Stellers Sea Ape Behavior

Unknown SEAL or Merbeing of the North Pacific Ocean.

Etymology: George Steller said the creature resembled the picture of an animal called Simia marina danica (Danish sea monkey) in Konrad Gesner's Historia animalium (1558). But Ges-ner's animal appears to be a nonexistent, composite beast.

Scientific names: Siren cynodephala, given by Johann Julius Walbaum in 1792; Trichechus hy-dropithecus, suggested by George Shaw in 1800; and Manatus simia, proposed by Johann Karl Wilhelm Illiger prior to 1811.

Variant name: Steller's sea monkey. Physical description: Length, 5 feet. Reddish color overall but grayer on the back and reddish-white on the underside. Tapering body. Doglike head. Pointed, erect ears. Large eyes. Drooping whiskers. No visible front flippers. Bilobate tail, with the upper lobe twice as large as the lower.

Behavior: Extremely playful. Can raise itself out of the water one-third of its length and remain in position for several minutes. Feeds on Bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) common in the Gulf of Alaska.

Distribution: Gulf of Alaska. Significant sightings: On August 10, 1741, German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, aboard the Saint Peter, observed a strange sea mammal about 260 miles south of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. It played around the ship for two hours, approaching as close as 16 feet, looking at the crew, and diving underneath the ship to emerge on the other side.

In June 1965, Miles Smeeton, on his ketch the Tzu Hang, observed a sheep-sized animal with long, reddish-yellow hair and a droopy mustache 4 miles off the north coast of Atka in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Its head looked more like a dog's than a seal's.

Present status: Only two observations, 200 years apart.

Possible explanations:

(1) A young Northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) was suggested by Leonhard Stejneger, although Steller and the rest of the crew were familiar with certain types of seals. However, the first time Steller saw a fur seal was later, on the rookeries of Ostrov Bering in the Commander Islands. Steller may have mistaken the seal's hind flippers for a tail.

(2) A young specimen of an unknown Arctic variety of Leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx), according to Roy Mackal. This seal has no external ears, however.

(3) A stray Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) matches the animal in size and behavior, but this seal rarely wanders far from the Hawaiian Islands and similarly has no external ears.

(4) A Sea otter (Enhydra lutris), though Steller was also familiar with this animal, which does not get much larger than 2 feet long.

(5) A juvenile specimen of Bernard

Heuvelmans's hypothetical elongated seal.


Sources: Georg Wilhelm Steller, "De bestiis marinis," in Novi commentarii Academiae Scientiarum Imperialis Petropolitanae 2 (1751): 289-398; Leonhard Stejneger, Georg Wilhelm Steller (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936), pp. 278-286; Miles Smeeton, The Misty Islands (London: George Harrap, 1969), pp. 109-110; Roy P. Mackal, Searching for Hidden Animals (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980), pp. 2-8; Michael Bright, There Are Giants in the Sea (London: Robson Books, 1989), pp. 112-113; Chris Orrick, "Commentary on Stejneger's Sea-Ape Review," North American BioFortean Review 1, no. 2 (June 1999): 12-15, http://www.strangeark. com/nabr/NABR2.pdf.

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