In the summer of 1741, the crew of a secret Russian expedition spotted
something off the southern coast of Alaska, and a nautical legend was born.
The North Pacific Ocean: late summer, 1741.
The naval voyage of the Second Kamchatka Expedition — a colossal (and cumbersome) secret imperial Russian enterprise, launched to determine North America’s geographic position relative to Asia — is approaching the meridian of its strange apotheosis. En route home to Kamchatka after two months at sea, the St. Peter sails west along the southern coasts of the Alaskan peninsula and the islands of the Aleutian archipelago.
On his first stretch in the Pacific is thirty-two-year-old Georg Wilhelm Steller, an ambitious botanist transplanted from Bavarian soil to a position with the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences, the institution he represents here in his role as expedition naturalist. Armed with a fierce intellect buoyed by an innate curiosity, the staunchly Lutheran botanist is trained in scientific practice rooted in the Enlightenment tradition. Aboard the St. Peter, he serves in an additional capacity as the personal physician to his cabin-mate, expedition leader Captain-Commander Vitus Jonassen Bering.
*The following contains excerpts from Steller’s personal journal, chronicling a most curious nautical sighting.
A respected veteran of the Great Northern War, Captain-Commander Bering is a naval officer of the imperial Russian Admiralty whose command of The First Kamchatka Expedition charted the strait that would bear his name.
Bering’s disciplined maturity and cautious temperament contrast sharply with the energetic Steller’s impatient inexperience and caustic wit. Their tenuous friendship is frequently imbalanced by terse disagreements about professional duty but is tempered by a begrudging mutual respect. Relationship status: it’s complicated.
Steller wrote: “For over two hours it swam around our ship, looking…. It could raise itself one-third of its length out of the water exactly like a man, and sometimes remained in this position for several minutes…”
In a few weeks, the St. Peter — and her crew, incapacitated by a savage outbreak of scurvy — will flounder helplessly in the North Pacific as winter’s icy squall breaches the subarctic latitudes. When the ship and her survivors become marooned for half a year upon a remote island at the western end of the Aleutians, Steller will make time to compose the outline or an ecological treatise, The Beasts of the Sea, based on his account of four marine mammals he observes around the island: the sea otter, the Northern (or Steller) sea lion, the Northern fur seal, and the Steller sea cow, a massive cold-water sirenian whose extinction is hastened as a consequence of the fur trade that explodes in the wake of the expedition.
But before the Second Kamchatka Expedition is imperiled by tragedy, Georg Wilhelm Steller will record the appearance of an animal that has long-escaped explanation: “The Sea Ape.”