The Discovery of Steller's Seacow
- Return of the Shipwrecked
On the 11th August the new small
"St. Peter II" had been finished, the mast could be set and provisions brought on board. On the 13th August the tiny*)40 feet long, 13 feet beam
vessel put to sea, the 46 survivors*)original crew: 76
tightly cramped in the narrow hull.
Much to his regret Steller had had to leave behind the greater part of his scientific collection, among other things the skeleton of a juvenile seacow:
In the evening of the 27th August 1742 the tiny boat tacked into the bay of Petropavlovsk, where already they had been declared dead, and their possessions shared out.
Steller used the miserable months on the island, to observe flora and fauna and to describe four local sea mammals in his famous work De Bestiis Marinis.
When describing the seacow, he did this under two, as we know today, wrong assumptions :
- Steller knew the English seafarer Dampier and other explorer's, descriptions of the seacows of the Philippines and the Caribeans, today known as Dugong and Manatee. He was convinced that these two species and this giant animal were of the same kind. He did therefore not see himself as its discoverer and first describer. However, he considered these previous reports to be "fragmentary and imperfect and for the most part fabulous and false*)de bestiis
trans. by Miller
- It was also reasonnable for him to assume, that further naturalists would be able to see the animal, investigate and describe it further, based on his records.
In the meantime Elisabeth I had become Empress of Russia. Under her rule, the polymath Lomonossow greatly reduced the influence of foreigners in Russian politics and science.
Krascheninnikows*)Stellers scientific assistant
Description of Kamtschatka, not Steller's, became the
reference book. This is probably the reason that Stellers records are hard to find in Russian archives.