Summer on Bering Island, 300 years ago:
The sea is smooth as glass. All over the bay, a hundred giant creatures move slowly between the rocks. Half of the bodies, the back and sides, project above the water, sea gulls perching on them, searching the rugged skin for parasites: Seacows in their preferred pastime - feeding. Extracts from Steller's narrations*)in Miller's translation of de Bestiis
Cape Manati, Bering Island
(drawing by L Stejneger, 1882)
"As they feed they move first one foot and then the other, as cattle and sheep do on land, when they graze, and thus with a gentle motion half swim and half walk, with the head under water. During the eating they move the head and neck like an ox.
With their claws they tear the large plants from the stones, cutting off the edible parts from the hard, uneatable roots and
stems. Under constant chewing, they bring the food into their mouth with their brush-like outer lips, for they feed in the same way as horses and cattle, by protruding the lips and
bending them outward. Now and then they move a bit further by a gentle sideways motion of the enormous fluke. Where they have stopped, great heaps of roots and stems are to be
seen cast upon the shore by the waves.
When they raise their noses above the water, as they do every four or five minutes, they blow out the air and a little water with a snort such as a
horse makes in blowing his nose. Otherwise the animal is dumb and utters no sound.
When these animals want to take a rest on the water they turn on their backs in a quiet bay and allow themselves to drift in the water like logs."
Family groups can be identified: Male, female, a baby and a half grown. The parents keep the young ones in the middle of the herd, carefully surrounding
them on the flank and rear.
This idyll ended abruptly with the arrival of Bering's unfortunate crew. While the men hunted the phlegmatic animals, Steller made amazing observations. The seacows had no fear for humans, the hunters could row close and harpoon them from short distance. When however a harpoon has hit an animal, those near him came and endeavoured to assist him. Some of them tried to upset the boat with their backs, others bore down upon the rope and tried to break it, or endeavoured to extract the hook from the back of their wounded companion with a blow from their tails, and several times they proved successful.
On one occasion, when a female was caught, the male, after trying in vain to free his captured mate, would follow her to the shore, and when she was dead he still came up to her. The next day the male was still waiting near his mate, and was seen again on the third day.
Still the animals did not learn from these dreadful occurrences, and remained in their familiar bays, where just previously their mates had been killed or wounded.
The seacows had no enemies apart from human hunters, and perhaps the occasional orca or shark grabbing a baby. They were, however, harassed by a number of internal and external parasites. In winter they "are often suffocated by the ice that floats about the shore and are cast upon the beach dead". Steller also found "whole seacow skeletons which had been swept by great floods far inland and into the mountains".