Stellers Sea

A large SIRENIAN of the North Pacific Ocean, presumed extinct since 1768.

Scientific name: Hydrodamalis gigas, given by Eberhard Zimmerman in 1780.

Variant name: Kapustnik (Russian, "cabbage-eater").

Physical description: Length, 20-26 feet. Weight, up to 10 metric tons. Tough, dark-brown skin. Rotund body. Small head. No functional teeth. Bilobate tail.

Behavior: Average submergence time, four to five minutes. Strictly a seaweed-eater.

Distribution: Gulf of Anadyr, Siberia; Commander Islands in the Bering Sea; Attu, Alaska.

Significant sightings: A. E. Nordenskiold interviewed several residents of Bering Island who affirmed that sea cows were still being killed and eaten there in the late 1770s. Around 1854, two other natives, Merchenin and Stepnoff, apparently saw an animal in the ocean that spouted water from its mouth.

Polish naturalist Benedykt Dybowski was certain that sea cows had survived off Bering Island as late as 1830.

Lucien Turner interviewed an Aleut woman who said that her father had seen sea cows off Attu in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, in the mid-nineteenth century.

A sea cow allegedly was stranded on the shore of the Gulf of Anadyr, Siberia, in 1910.

In the early 1950s, a harpooner named Ivan Skripkin told of 32-foot, finless animals that appeared every July not far from Bering Island.

The crew of the Russian whaler Buran observed six dark-skinned marine animals, 20-26 feet long, feeding in a lagoon near Cape Navarin, Chukot Autonomous Province, Siberia, in July 1962. They had small heads, bilobate tails, and bifurcated upper lips.

Russian fisherman Ivan Nikiforovich Che-chulin walked up to and touched a live sea cow in the summer of 1976 at Anapkinskaya Bay, south of Cape Navarin. Its tail was forked like a whale's, and it had a long snout.

Present status: Steller's sea cow was discovered in 1741 by German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller when he was shipwrecked on Ostrov Bering in the Commander Islands off Siberia. Fur hunters made regular visits to the island from 1743 to 1763, eating the reputedly tasty flesh of the animal. During that time, its range was limited to the Commander Islands, but during the Pleistocene, it had ranged along the Pacific Rim from Japan to Baja California. Most authorities agree that Steller's sea cow was extinct by 1768, although A. E. Nordenskiold thought the animal lingered in the Commanders another ninety years. Possible explanations:

(1) A female Narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is about the same size and does not have the distinctive tusk of the male. A rare visitant to Siberian waters, this was probably the animal seen in 1854.

(2) Bernard Heuvelmans suggested that a different, more agile species of Hydrodamalis survived in waters along the mainland.

(3) The 1976 sighting may have been a stray Northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris). This large seal has a bilobate tail and sometimes wanders from its normal migration route to the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in the spring. Sources: A. E. Nordenskiold, The Voyage ofthe

Vega round Asia and Europe (London: Macmillan, 1881); Frederick W. True, "The Arctic Sea Cow," in G. Brown Goode, ed., The

STELLER's Sea Cow, a sirenian presumed to be extinct since the eighteenth century. (William M. Rebsamen)

Fisheries and Fishery Industries ofthe United States (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1884), pp. 128-136; Benedykt Dybowski, "Wyspy Komandorskie," Kosmos 10 (1885): 1-30; Leonhard Stejneger, "How the Great Northern Sea Cow (Rytina) Became Exterminated," American Naturalist21 (1887): 1047-1054; Leonhard Stejneger, GeorgWilhelm Steller, the Pioneer of Alaskan Natural History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936), pp. 353-357, 364-367; S. K Klumov, in Priroda, 1962, no. 8, pp. 65-75; A. A. Berzin, E. A. Tikhomirov, and V. I. Troinin, in Priroda, 1963, no. 8, pp. 73-75; Bernard Heuvelmans, In the Wake ofthe Sea-Serpents (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968), pp. 192-194, 467-469; "Somebody's Sea-Cow," Pursuit, no. 5 (January 1969): 13-14; Delphine Haley, "Saga of Steller's Sea Cow," Natural History 87 (November 1978): 9-17; "Steller Idea," ISC Newsletter 4, no. 3 (Autumn 1985): 9-10; Michel Raynal, "Does the Steller's Sea Cow Still Survive?" INFO Journal, no. 51 (February 1987): 15-19, 37.

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