Russia's Great Voyages
Russia's Great Voyages

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"Sea Lions at St. Paul Island"
  Sea Lions at St. Paul Island. Louis Choris, 1825; lithograph and watercolor. The artist with the Kotzebue voyage of 1815-1818 provided the first images of a fur seal rookery, incorrectly identified as "sea lions." Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

Natural Curiosities

You are also to take with you from Irkutsk the order to describe such natural curiosities as may be met in the course of the Expedition.

The naturalists on the Russian voyages were ardent collectors and stuffed their small cabins with all manner of live and dead creatures. Their collections were acquired often in the face of conflict with the ship's officers over space to work and store specimens. Despite the hardships, these pioneers provided Europe with the first documentation of the teeming animal life of northwestern North America. No other nation conducted such systematic and long-term investigations from Monterey Bay to Kotzebue Sound.



Georg Steller

Scholars will ever be grateful to Bering for persuading Steller to go with him on the "St. Peter."

Steller's Sea Cow, Hydrodamalis gigas

  Steller's Sea Cow or Great Northern Manatee, Hydrodamalis gigas. This giant mural shows the huge size of the now extinct Sirenian. Yakolev, a first-hand observer of Hydrodamalis, claims that an order was given to the headquarters of the outpost on the Komandorskiye (Commander) Islands on November 27, 1755, prohibiting hunting of the sea cows. However, he also notes that by this time Hydrodamalis was extremely rare.

In Alaska, Georg Steller is the most well known of the naturalists who traveled on the Russian voyages because his name is so closely identified with both the ubiquitous Steller's jay and the now endangered Steller's sea lion.

Steller was the naturalist on the voyage of 1741. That journey provided him with just 10 short hours on Kayak Island near the Alaskan coast, a brief stop on one of the Shumagin Islands, and a long winter shipwrecked on Bering Island near Siberia. He made thorough use of his time in each place. He wrote the first description of marine mammals of the North Pacific and the only scientist to have seen, studied, and described a living sea cow (Northern Manatee). Georg Steller was a complex man of stern theological training, but also "a great botanist and anatomist, well versed in natural science" no small praise from a naval officer, Sven Waxell. Waxell owed his life and his teenage son's to Steller's care and provision of greens and meat to combat the scurvy which had killed Bering and more than half the crew during the dreary winter of 1741-1742.



Steller's Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), illustration

Steller's Sea Cow Hydrodamalis gigas. First described by Steller in 1741, this giant manatee was hunted to extinction by 1768. Inset: Steller's sea cow's palate. [Source]

Hydrodamalis gigas - Extinct  
5,400 to 11,196 kilograms  


Estimated upper size limit of about 7.9 meters




Steller's Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) - outer surface of skin
Outer surface of skin of Steller's sea cow Hydrodamalis gigas. [Source]


Stellers' Sea Cow or Northern Manatee, Hydrodamalis gigas, is an extinct member of the order Sirenia (today consisting of dugongs and manatees) first described by western science in 1741. They weighed approximately 10 tons, fed on kelp, and lived in shallow waters around the Bering Sea. Hunted relentlessly for their meat, they died out within 27 years of their discovery. The reduction in their kelp food supply may also have contributed to their extinction.

Hydrodamalis was gregarious, and herds appear to have included juveniles, males and females. Juveniles were kept toward the middle of the herd, and Georg Steller (1751) describes herd members attempting to come to the aid of captured individuals. Hydrodamalis appears to have been monogamous, and Steller's account of the animal's behavior suggests the pair bond was quite strong.

A small population of sea cows lived in the arctic waters around Bering Island and nearby Copper Island. Far larger than the largest male walrus, Steller's sea cows measured up to 25 feet long and 22 feet around. A single animal weighed up to 8,800 pounds. A sea cow looked somewhat like a large seal, but had two stout forelimbs and a whale-like tail. According to Steller's description, "The animal never comes out on shore, but always lives in the water. Its skin is black and thick, like the bark of an old oak..., its head in proportion to the body is small..., it has no teeth, but only two flat white bones—one above, the other below." These animals fed on a variety of kelp. Wherever sea cows had been feeding, heaps of stalks and roots of kelp were washed ashore.

Herds of Hydrodamalis congregated in shallow waters near the shore, sometimes so close that hunters could simply wade out to them. Steller notes that individuals or herds were often found near the mouths of stream or rivers, which suggests they could not tolerate drinking marine water. Individuals spent the majority of their time feeding or resting, and Steller notes that the head could be kept submerged for 4-5 minutes at a time. Several firsthand observers comment on the apparent fearlessness of Hydrodamalis. According to Steller, boats could be easily rowed into a herd and humans could wade among individuals near shore with little or no reaction.

It is not known exactly when the last individual of Hydrodamalis died, but it appears likely that the species was extinct by 1768. Yakolev, a firsthand observer of Hydrodamalis, claims that an order was given to the headquarters of the outpost on the Komandorskiye Islands on November 27, 1755, prohibiting hunting of the sea cows. However, he also notes that by this time Hydrodamalis was extremely rare.

Much has been written about the extinction of Hydrodamalis at the hands of humans. The hunting practices described in firsthand accounts are extremely wasteful. Often, hunters would simply wade out to an individual, spear it, and then allow the animal to swim off, hoping that it would later die and drift to shore. No sustained yield practices were used, and the low reproductive rate of the population, combined with its probable existence in a sub-optimal environment likely hastened the species' decline. The intense hunting of sea otters on the Bering Sea islands may have contributed to the final extinction of Hydrodamalis. It is known that sea urchin populations can severely deplete sea grass and algae communities when otters are removed, and as this happened on the Bering Sea islands, the sea cows would have faced a new competitor for food. A similar course of events may have occurred 12,000-14,000 years earlier along the coast of Asia and North America as aboriginal peoples colonized the areas and began hunting otters and sea cows. [Source]

The population of sea cows was likely small when Steller first described the giant creatures. Some scientists think the entire population included fewer than 2,000 animals, all of which lived around Bering and Copper islands. This small population was wiped out quickly by the sailors, seal hunters, and fur traders that followed Vitus Bering's route past the islands to Alaska. These people killed the sea cows primarily for food and their skins, which were used to make boats. As a result of unlimited killing, the Steller's sea cow population declined sharply. In 1768, just 27 years after Steller first described the sea cow, the species became extinct. Today, the sea cow seems an almost imaginary creature, but Steller's descriptions and a few intact skeletons and pieces of skin, preserved in museums, prove that this amazing animal lived in the Bering Sea just over 200 years ago.

Sadly, some of the closest relatives of the Steller's sea cow, the Florida manatee and the dugong, are endangered today. These species' populations are declining as a result of pollution, deaths caused by the propellers of outboard boat motors, and habitat loss caused by human development.

SPECTACLED or PALLAS'S CORMORANT - Phalacrocorax perspicillatus - EXTINCT
Spectacled or Pallas's Cormorant Phalacrocorax Perspicillatus, illustration Spectacled or Pallas's Cormorant Phalacrocorax Perspicillatus, painting

Spectacled or Pallas's Cormorant Phalacrocorax Perspicillatus. First described by Georg Steller in 1741, extinct by 1850. This species was forced to extinction by overhunting. [Sources: 1, 2]

Perspicillatus - EXTINCT  
5 to 6 kilograms  


[data pending]



[Sources: 1, 2]    


The Spectacled Cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus), was a large, nearly flightless seabird that lived on a few remote islands at the western end of the Aleutian chain. This species was first identified in 1741 by the naturalist George Steller, who traveled with the explorer Vitus Bering on his voyage of exploration and discovery of Alaska. Steller discovered the large, black birds while shipwrecked on a tiny island in the western Aleutians. This island was later named Bering Island because Vitus Bering and many of his crew died there during the long winter after the shipwreck. In midwinter, the stranded sailors, Steller among them, began killing the slow-moving and unwary cormorants for food. Steller wrote, "They weighed 12-14 pounds, so that one single bird was sufficient for three starving men."

Sailfin Sculpin
  Sailfin Sculpin, Nautichthys oculofasciatus. The glory of this prickly fish is a towering first dorsal fin. That fin is followed by a short but long second fin supported by 27-30 rays. Note the diagonal black bar that crosses its cheek continues through the eye in its knobby, ridged head.

Like other cormorants, the spectacled cormorant fed on fish. Almost nothing else is known about this extinct bird. Steller was the only naturalist to see the spectacled cormorant alive. Others learned of the species through Steller's writing and brought specimens into museums in 1837. The population of spectacled cormorants declined quickly as whalers, fur traders and Aleut Natives (brought to Bering Island by the Russian-American Company) killed the birds for food and feathers. By 1850, fewer than 100 years after Steller first saw these seabirds, the spectacled cormorant became extinct. Steller's records, six specimens, and two skeletons are the only evidence that this species existed fewer than 200 years ago. [Sources: 1, 2]


The fate of the Spectacled Cormorant and the Steller's Sea Cow illustrates the importance of the Endangered Species Act. Without the steadfast commitment to species protection embodied in the act and aggressive protection programs, entire species can disappear when the needs of people come face to face with the needs of individual species.



Attend to trees, shrubs and plants Most of the naturalists on the voyages of exploration were medical doctors and therefore also botanists. Medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries depended on herbs. The search for new and useful plants was a powerful motive that inspired these scientists to undertake dangerous journeys across Siberia and around the world. In giving the orders in 1785, Catherine the Great spoke for all of Russia's rulers:

You will particularly attend to trees, shrubs, land and water plants...You will lose no opportunity of remarking most minutely such as may be of benefit to society...of use as food for man or beast or applied as a remedy for any disorder.

Over the course of the 126 of Russian voyages, the Botanical Garden of St. Petersburg received more than 10,000 specimens from around the world, at least half of these from Alaska and California. Many new plants were added to the European pharmacopoeia for the treatment of such universal disorders as diarrhea, venereal disease, catarrh, and boils. Europeans benefited from the knowledge of Native healers who were interviewed by the traveling doctors.

California Poppy Illustration
Eschscholtzia californica (California Poppy) Albert von Chamisso, 1820. Chamisso named this bright yellow flower he found while visiting San Francisco in 1816 for his colleague, Eschscholtz. New York Botanical Garden.
Adelbert von Chamisso
Adelbert von Chamisso, from an engraving by E.T.A. Hoffman, 1805. Chamisso was a popular French poet and naturalist on Kotzebue's 1815 voyage. He is noted for having conducted the first complete botanical profile in western North America including the San Francisco Bay area. Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum, Berlin-Dahlem.
Seaweed Illustration
Seaweed Illustration.



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