As a deep-sea ecologist, I often find myself engaging with cryptozoology and other fringe science. That shouldn’t be surprising—after all, we actually did find the giant squid (and then the even larger colossal squid). Even though almost all infamous cryptids are, at best, the product of mythology, I enjoy getting to the meat of the matter, seeking out the origins of these stories and trying to understand how they emerge and persist. And among the most compelling cryptid in the sea is Steller’s Sea Ape.
In 1740, after a two-year overland journey from Moscow to Okhotsk, the naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller boarded the St. Peter and joined Captain Vitus Bering on the Great Northern Expedition. This expedition would define Europe’s relationship to the northern Pacific for the next three centuries. It marked the European discovery of Alaska, expanded the Russian Empire, and put to rest legends of a northeast passage.
During the expedition, Steller identified and described dozens of new species (it’s hard to argue that he discovered them, as the Arctic Pacific had already been populated by humans for thousands of years), including the now-extinct Steller’s Sea Cow, the threatened Steller’s Eider, the threatened Steller’s Sea Eagle, and the near-threatened Steller’s Sea Lion. Modern naturalists sometimes joke that it’s bad luck to be named for Steller, though the Steller’s Jay is doing fine.
Steller also identified a curious and enduring cryptid, Steller’s Sea Ape, which he describes in De Bestiis Marinis (The Beasts of the Sea):
“The animal was about two ells [about six feet] long. The head was like a dog’s head, the ears pointed and erect, and on the upper and lower lips, on both sides whiskers hung down … The body was longish, round and fat … the skin was covered thickly with hair, grey on the back, reddish white on the belly, but in water it seemed to be all red and cow-colored.”
He dubbed it Simnia marina danica, after a similar description from a 16th-century document.
Simnia marina hasn’t had any notable sightings since Steller’s account, but, due largely to his stellar reputation as a naturalist, the Sea Ape continues to endure in the annals of cryptozoology. Though not nearly as popular as Loch Ness monsters or Sasquatles (a prominent Bigfoot researcher informed me that this is the proper plural of Sasquatch), it does periodically appear on cryptozoology websites, either left unidentified or to be explained away as a mangy northern fur seal, a curious otter, or Steller’s own sea cow.
All these explanations tend to be unsatisfying and not particularly compelling. Steller’s notes indicate that he spent several hours in close proximity to the Sea Ape, watching it feed and play around the boat. He even attempted, twice, to shoot it. Cryptozoologists point to this extended account to argue that it is unlikely that Steller would so badly misidentify a species he, himself, described.
I tend to agree.
In order to unravel the mystery of Steller’s Sea Ape, we need to turn not to biology and ecology, but rather history; in particular, the history of Vitus Bering, Georg Steller, and the ill-fated voyage of St. Peter.
Though a public success, the Great Northern Expedition was a brutal, gruesome slog through the uncharted North Pacific. Steller missed the departure in 1738, which prompted his overland journey to Okhotsk to meet the ship two years later. Originally planning to join him for part of the journey, Steller’s wife decided a two-year schlep across Siberia was not for her. She stayed behind in Moscow.
Bering, by all accounts, was not particularly inclined to humor the naturalist. During the entire expedition, Steller was permitted ashore just once, for 10 hours, while St. Peter was resupplied. Many of Steller’s species descriptions came from that short jaunt. It would likely be the last enjoyable moment for Steller during the expedition. Though Steller was spared, the St. Peter crew and officers were plagued with scurvy. Bering was so sick that he barely left his stateroom. Steller’s opportunities for further expeditions ashore vanished. A month and a half after his one trip ashore, on August 10, 1741, somewhere south of Kodiak Island, Steller pulled out his notebook and described his Sea Ape.
Three months later, facing heavy storms, the St. Peter wrecked on the shore of Bering Island. Bering died of scurvy on December 8, and as the winter pressed in, the wrecked ship itself was destroyed. The crew held out through the winter, though another 28 died. On Bering Island, they discovered, then consumed, the ill-fated Steller’s Sea Cow, a massive arctic dugong (think gigantic manatee). Less than 30 years after its discovery, Steller’s Sea Cow would be hunted to extinction, the first modern marine mammal to go extinct thanks to human intervention.
As the weather improved, the surviving crew cobbled together a tiny vessel from St. Peter’s remains, and set off to continue the expedition. They named their new ship The Bering, likely not as a compliment.
During the eight months they spent stranded on Bering Island, Steller composed De Bestiis Marinis, a popular account of the animals they encountered on the voyage. This document would ultimately be published after his death. The Sea Ape did not appear in any of Steller’s official reports.
Steller remained in the high arctic for another 2 years, studying the Kamchatka peninsula before being recalled to St. Petersburg. He died enroute, in November 1746. His notes, documents, and manuscripts reached the Academy in St. Petersburg and were published posthumously. The Sea Ape would live on.
What was the Sea Ape? The secret lies in the breadcrumbs left throughout Steller’s notes. His description of the ambling creature, made only three months before the voyage’s catastrophic end, is not dissimilar from his descriptions of the captain he despised. The whiskers that hung down the Sea Ape’s face bear a striking likeness to the heavy chops favored by Bering. Perhaps desperate to return to land, Steller even fantasized about taking a few shots at the source of his suffering. Its absence from his official report suggest that Steller himself didn’t take the Sea Ape seriously. Stranded for months on a frozen island, did a bitter Steller choose to immortalize his hatred for the captain in popular lore?
The most compelling evidence for this hypothesis lies in the name Steller gave his Sea Ape. He didn’t name it Simnia marina, literally “sea ape”, but Simnia marina danica — the “Danish sea ape”.
There was only one Dane aboard St. Peter. Its captain, Vitus Bering.
There is a tendency to forget when studying natural history, especially of the early days of exploration, that these great scientific endeavors were conducted by people. Relationships have as much, if not more, impact on the success or failure of a voyage than scientific expertise. As Steller’s great expedition into the uncharted Arctic descended into an ice-filled slog, he turned to humor to lash out at the man he blamed for their misfortune. At the time, he couldn’t have known that things were only going to get worse, or that the story of his sea ape would endure.