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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

MUIRHEAD'S MYSTERIES: Steller's Sea Cow

Hi again, fellow cryptozoologists and Fortean Zoologists, today`s blog should really be subtitled the Steller`s Sea Cow and Sea Monkey blog because it is these subjects I will be examining.

Steller`s Sea Cow has been defined as : "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 tonnes.
Description: Tough, dark brown skin. Rotund body. Small head. No functional teeth. Bilobate tail.
Behaviour: 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 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 Chechulin 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”. (1)

So the above is like, say, the skeleton or frame-work of the sea cow. The human element is no less interesting: In 1741 two ships, the St Peter and St Paul were travelling past the Aleutian islands. On one ship the Danish explorer Vitus Bering “was wrecked on Attu, the westernmost island in the chain. Those members of his crew who didn`t die of exposure managed to stay alive by harpooning and eating vast sea animals – up to 30 feet long – which were feeding in the kelp around the islands. These huge mammals, members of the Sirenia family – which today includes the manatees and the dugongs,all rare or endangered – became known as Steller`s sea cows. Over the past 20 years there have been various reported sightings of the sea cow off the western Aleutians and Kamchatka. The descriptions are intriguing, but it is very possible that the animals were whales, or walruses, which only seldom venture as far south as the Aleutians.(2)
Furthermore, “They [the Russians - R] killed the slow moving sea cows in such numbers that there were none left by 1768. (We have no way of knowing how many sea cows were on the islands [the Commander Islands - R] when Bering landed, but Leonhard Stejneger, Steller`s biographer, has estimated that there were some fifteen hundred.) It had taken only twenty-seven years for the Russian adventurers to eliminate the hapless sea cow from the face of the earth, but the sealers had no way of knowing that this was the last of them; they probably assumed that there were similar undiscovered islands with more sea cows. (3)

Sven Waxell, an officer on Bering`s 1741 voyage aboard the St Peter which was wrecked on the Commander Islands drew the only known example of a sea cow. (4)

Now the Sea Monkey: [not to be confused with the strange semi-animate bogus beings made of chemicals of this name to be bought in Hong Kong in the 1970s - R] According to Steller” During this time we were near land or surrounded by it we saw large numbers of hair seals, sea otters, fur seals, sea lions, and porpoises…On August 10 [1741] we saw a very unusual and unknown sea animal, of which I am going to give a brief account since I observed it for two whole hours. It was about two Russian ells [six feet] in length; the head was like a dog`s, with pointed erect ears. From the upper and lower lips on both sides whiskers hung down which made it look like a Chinaman. The eyes were large; the body was longish round and thick, tapering gradually towards the tail. The skin seemed thickly covered with hair, of a grey colour on the back, but reddish white on the belly; in the water, however, the whole animal appeared entirely reddish and cow-coloured. The tail was divided into two fins, of which the upper, as in the case of sharks,was twice as large as the lower (5)

“No record of any other sighting of this animal has been found,and so scientists have generally agreed that it must have become extinct at around the same time as the sea cow. That was until 1965...On a clear afternoon in June, [when Brigadier Smeeton, his wife and daughter and Henry Combe - R] were sailing about four miles off the northern coast of Atka, in the central Aleutians, bound for Deep Cove,when they saw a strange animal which they couldn`t identify”. (6) Its appearance was like the Sea Monkey. The Sea Monkey has variously been identified as a otter or a wayward Hawaian monk seal.

Well that`s all folks. See you tomorrow.

1. G.M. Eberhart Mysterious Creatures A Guide To Cryptozoology vol. 2 N-Z.(2002) p.519
2. M.Clark Salty Tales. BBC Wildlife Magazine. January 1987. p.11
3. R.Ellis Monsters of the Sea (1995) p.p93-94
4. R.Ellis. Ibid.p.94
5. G.W.Steller Journal of a Voyage with Bering,1741-1742. (1988 ed) in R.Ellis Ibid p.97
6. M.Clark op cit p.12

Devo – Patterns

Patterns all around you
Patterns everywhere
Patterns of behaviour
Sometimes seem unfair
Can you recognise the patterns that you find?

1 comment:

Retrieverman said...

In Farley Mowat's Sea of Slaughter, page 171, there are some accounts of sea cows that appeared in the North Atlantic coast of North America.

Richard Whitbourne to have come across one in St. John's harbour (Newfoundland). John Josselyn described coming across one in Casco Bay (Maine) in 1670.

These animals supposedly were known to have occurred off the coast of Greenland.

Now, the first two could have been errant West Indian Manatees, because there is no description of huge size accompanying them.