As we have explored our planet and delved deeper and deeper into its many mysteries we have discovered all manner of new species, even as others go extinct. Scientists have catalogued a wide range of new and often bizarre animal and plant life, but sometimes there are those discoveries that seem to plunge everything even further into mystery. Such is the case of a respected naturalist and zoologist, who among all of his amazing new animal discoveries has also left us with some strange creatures that continue to remain enigmatic and elusive.
In 1733 an ambitious expedition was launched to explore Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula, led by the Danish born Russian Naval officer Vitus Bering aboard the vessels the St. Peter and St. Paul. It was to be Bering’s second excursion to the frigid seas of the region, his first in 1720 having successfully demonstrated that Russia was not connected to North America by land, a discovery that caused the Bering Strait to be later named in his honor. On this second voyage he was aiming to map out the uncharted Arctic Siberian coast, and along to assist and record new discoveries was a group of respected biologists, geologists, and other scientists. One of these was the German botanist, zoologist, physician and explorer Georg Wilhelm Steller, who volunteered after being stationed as a physician aboard a ship tending Russian troops, and went off to join up with the expedition in 1938.
During the perilous expedition, which would journey all the way up to Alaska exploring both land and sea in the face of numerous hardships including the elements, treacherous seas, storms, disease, and scurvy, Stellar would catalogue a wide range of amazing new plant and animal species, many of which would be named after him, such as the Steller’s sea lion, Steller’s sea eagle, Steller’s sea cow, and Steller’s Jay, among others. Indeed, these discoveries helped propel him to great fame as a zoologist and naturalist, yet among these animals he recorded are some that have managed to retain a distinct air of mystery about them, and Steller has become known for his cryptids as well.
Perhaps the most well-known and mysterious of Steller’s mystery animals is a creature that was catalogued and described based on just a single sighting off the Shumagin Islands of Alaska. On August 10, 1741, he was aboard the St. Peter when he sighted a creature the likes of which he had never seen, which was described as being around 6 feet long and with a head like a hog, sporting pointy ears and lacking any forelegs or fins. He would later write of the encounter and the creature’s description:
It was about two Russian ells [about 5 ft] 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 almost 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 gray color on the back, but reddish white on the belly; in the water, however, the whole animal appeared entirely reddish and cow-colored. The tail was divided into two fins, of which the upper, as in the case of sharks, was twice as large as the lower. Nothing struck me more surprising than the fact that neither forefeet as in the marine amphibians nor, in their stead, fins were to be seen…For over two hours it swam around our ship, looking, as with admiration, first at the one and then at the other of us. At times it came so near to the ship that it could have been touched with a pole, but as soon as anybody stirred it moved away a little further. It could raise itself one-third of its length out of the water exactly like a man, and sometimes it remained in this position for several minutes. After it had observed us for about half an hour, it shot like an arrow under our vessel and came up again on the other side; shortly after, it dived again and reappeared in the old place; and in this way it dived perhaps thirty times.
He claimed to have observed the strange beast for a full 2 hours, during which time he said that it had fed and played with a clump of seaweed. He also said that he had shot at it twice, but missed. Steller would not see the unusual sea creature again, but based on his lengthy encounter he described it as Simia marina, which translates to “Sea Ape,” and the mysterious animal would come to be widely known as Steller’s Sea Ape, going on to be much discussed in the field of cryptozoology. Indeed, Steller even postulated that the animal could have been some sort of sea-going primate.
Ever since this strange sighting there has been much talk of what Steller had seen during his encounter, which is made all the more mysterious as he had been the only person to have seen it and there was no evidence at all to support his odd finding. One idea is that it was merely a Northern fur seal, a sea otter, or some other misidentified known marine animal, but this would be strange since Steller was a trained, respected, and experienced zoologist who was a meticulous observer who had documented dozens of new species and was familiar with the animals of the area. He had also observed the creature for 2 hours, making it seem rather unlikely that he could have made a misidentification, unless perhaps it was a mutated or deformed individual or was a highly out of place animal like a tropical Hawaiian monk seal in Arctic waters.
Another idea is that Steller’s Sea Ape never existed at all outside of Steller’s imagination. It has been speculated that the whole sighting may have been conjured up as a sort of jab at Bering himself, a caricature as a practical joke of sorts. This theory does have some merit, as Steller and Bering had been at odds with each other and there was no love lost when Bering died of scurvy toward the end of the voyage. It is also odd that the full name given to the unidentified creature was actually Simnia marina Danica, meaning “Danish Sea Ape.” Now, why would he call it Danish when they were out in the middle of nowhere in the Arctic? It seems pretty coincidental that there should just happen to be exactly one Danish person on the expedition, and that was Bering himself. The description of the Sea Ape even seems to match the Captain in some respects. It has also been pointed out that Steller did not really seem to take the Sea Ape all that seriously, mentioning it only in his notes and not in any official report or scientific journal on the expedition and its discoveries.
For these reasons it has been suggested that this account was a barb meant to ridicule Bering, who Steller had despised and blamed for myriad troubles and suffering, and that he did it as a gag. It is very possible that Steller died before being able to tell anyone that it had all been just been a joke, or that he just sort of forgot about it, after which it got picked up to become the cryptozoological mystery it is today.
Of course there is also the possibility that Steller did indeed see something new and mysterious out there in those icy waters, although just what that could have been is left to speculation. Interestingly, in June of 1965 a sailor named Miles Smeeton was with his daughter and a friend aboard the yacht Tzu Hang when they made a sighting of a strange sea-going creature off Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, and which he mentions in his book Misty Islands. The creature had a face like a “shi-tzu terrier with drooping whiskers,” and remained in sight for around 20 seconds before diving down out of sight. Smeeton would claim that he had never seen anything like it, that it was not a seal, and that after reading about Stellar’s Sea Ape he felt that the description was nearly identical to what he had witnessed. In the end, the case of the Sea Ape remains mysterious.
Another of the mysterious animals connected to Steller did in fact exist, but has nevertheless become a cryptid. One of the animals discovered by Steller during the Bering expedition was an enormous marine mammal known as Steller’s Sea Cow (Hydramalis gigas stelleri). This creature was part of a group of animals called sirenians, which also includes manatees and dugongs, and the Sea Cow was the largest of them all, measuring up to 9 meters (30 feet) long and weighing as much as 8–10 metric tons. Despite their large, intimidating size, these animals were peaceful vegetarians, and it was partly this docile nature that would lead to their demise.
When Steller first officially discovered and scientifically classified the Steller’s Sea Cow in 1741 the species had already long been overhunted by native peoples and was in trouble. These creatures were slow, gentle and unafraid of humans to the point of being almost tame, making them easy targets, and had they meat, hides, and oils in their fat that were highly prized. By the time Steller came across them, the Sea Cow, which had once ranged all over the North Pacific Ocean from northern California all the way to Japan, was isolated to just a small remaining population off of the Kamchatka peninsula. The endangered species was further ruthlessly hunted until by 1768 it was gone, just about 3 decades after its initial discovery by outsiders. Or was it?
In the centuries since the supposed extinction of the Steller’s Sea Cow there have been occasional sightings of what may be surviving specimens, and even the locals have claimed that the animals were hunted into the mid-19th century, long after science had considered them vanished. Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman’s book The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents, and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep features several accounts of Steller’s Sea Cows in more modern times. One was the carcass of a Sea Cow that supposedly washed up at the Gulf of Anadyr, Siberia, in 1910. In the middle of the 19th century a whaler reported that he had often sighted strange, large finless animals around 30 feet in length leisurely floating about near Bering Island.
Sea Cows were also spotted by Russian whalers in 1962, and a Russian fisherman saw one in the same area in 1976. 1983 saw yet another carcass allegedly washed up on a remote Russian island. The most recent sighting allegedly happened in 2006 off Washington State, in the United States. The creature was spotted by a Captain Ron Malast and his crew as they fished for tuna about 40 miles offshore. He would describe the animal as a “manatee,” and in an article in the Chinook Observer he said of the strange encounter thus:
I received a radio call from a skipper of another charter boat. The skipper, for whom I have great respect as a fisherman and a straight shooter, wishes to remain anonymous for fear of being put in a straight-jacket and sent to a loony bin. He said, “Did you see that? It was a manatee. It was bigger than a sea lion and about 12 feet long. At first I did not know what it was, but we cruised closer to it and I looked it straight in the eye. I then knew exactly what it was, it stayed on the surface for about two minutes, unafraid and then slipped off into the deep. When my brother, who was also on the charter boat, and I got home, we immediately got on the computer and pulled up a picture of a manatee and it was the same mammal that we had seen that afternoon. I will remember it to my dying day for what it was – a manatee.
According to Coleman, similar potential sightings of Steller Sea Cows have been made in places as far flung as the northwest coast of North America, the northeast coast of Asia, in the Arctic Ocean and Greenland. Do such sightings mean that the Steller’s Sea Cow may not be gone after all, and that it is still out their lurking along the remote coastlines of the North Pacific? Skeptics of these sightings have pointed out that the Steller’s Sea Cow was not a particularly stealthy beast, that it inhabited areas of shallow water near the shore to feed on kelp, and wasn’t at all shy around human beings, making it seem highly unlikely it could hide for so long even along these rugged coasts. There is also the idea that these sightings are just misidentified elephant seals. However, reports like this continue to come in from time to time, and witnesses say these are not seals. It has even been suggested that surviving Sea Cows could be behind other sea monster sightings in the region. What is going on here, if anything? It is hard to say.
Perhaps not as large or imposing as the cryptids we have looked at so far, there was another that is lesser known but just as mysterious. Steller discovered not only large sea animals, but also a good number of bird species, yet among these birds is one that has become quite an enigma. One of the many hardships Steller faced on the Bering expedition was being actually shipwrecked on Bering Island in 1941, but even as he tended to the injured and sick he still managed to explore and document the flora and fauna of the island.
One of the animals he described during this time was a type of bird he cryptically called a “white sea-raven.” He called it a very rare bird that nested on steep, inaccessible cliffs, but never provided any physical specimen or even a good drawing. It doesn’t seem to match the description of any local bird and was not reported by anyone else at the time. Indeed, even Steller himself only briefly mentioned it in his notes, which is unusual as he was typically very meticulous about documenting everything he saw with sketches, specimens, and detailed notes. Because it was uncharacteristically mentioned only in short, it has been speculated the original document concerning this bird may have been lost, and what has come to be known as the Steller’s Sea Raven has remained a mystery as no one really knows what it was or if it is still there on the island.
Cryptozoologist Karl Shuker went to some lengths to get to the bottom of this mystery and has found some interesting things. Two people he talked to believed that the bird was probably new to science at the time of the discovery, but is probably a known species now, although no one knows which it could be. In this case the answer might be right in front of our face and we don’t even know it. The Sea Raven may also possibly even be synonymous with one of his other bird discoveries, such as the spectacled cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus), which is now extinct, and that he had perhaps seen an albino individual that he had misidentified as another species. Another idea that Shuker has postulated is that he may have seen a vagrant, out of place species from somewhere else.
Shuker has also mentioned that the secret may lie in a lost scientific paper that Steller mentioned in a letter he sent to the Russian Academy in 1742, in which he stated that he had put together a detailed list of Bering Island’s birds and fishes that he would send later. It is thought that this paper would have certainly held more information on the mysterious Sea Raven, but unfortunately it seems as though the paper he was talking about never arrived, or if it did it has been lost or filed away and forgotten in some dusty archive. For now, the identity of this mysterious Steller’s Sea Raven is a mystery, and perhaps always will be.
Steller made some amazing discoveries during his adventure, and greatly contributed to his field as a zoologist and naturalist. Yet at the same time that he has shone a light on some new species he has also managed to raise more mysteries as well, which still continue to baffle even now, centuries after his big expedition. Perhaps in time we will eventually come to some understanding of these creatures, but for now they remain in the shadows, and a more mysterious part of Steller’s menagerie.