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 The Aleuts on Bering Island
by Kim MacQuarrie

"Kamchatka: Siberia's Forbidden Wilderness" was filmed on both the Kamchatka Peninsula and also on Bering Island, one of two islands called the Commander Islands that lie some hundreds of miles to the east of Kamchatka. The reason for filming on Bering Island was a simple one: The island is part of the Kamchatka Oblast, or political region, and nearly three-quarters of it is a biosphere reserve. Besides harboring millions of tufted puffins, a large population of Russian sea otters, and a permanently dusky subspecies of Arctic fox, Bering Island also possesses some of the largest rookeries of northern fur seals on the planet. Every summer, hundreds of thousands of these deep-sea diving mammals stop over during their migrations and fill the islands' shoreline with one of the largest and noisiest wildlife spectacles on the planet.

Although the many species of wildlife on Bering Island are fascinating in themselves, the island's history is also an extraordinary one. Unknown to Europeans until the 18th century, Bering Island was discovered by the Danish explorer Vitus Bering, who navigated his crippled ship there in 1741. Bering was working in the employ of the Russia Navy, and had just discovered the coast of Alaska when he and his Russian crew attempted to sail back to Kamchatka across what later became known as the Bering Sea. Blown off course by fierce winter storms and with a crew so seriously afflicted by scurvy that only three men were able to work on deck, the St. Peter finally sailed within sight of land on Nov 4, 1741, some 16 miles away. With their sails and rigging already splitting apart from repeated storms, the exhausted crew so wanted this to be Kamchatka that many thought that they spotted the tell-tale landmarks of the peninsula from which they had sailed from over a year before. A German-born naturalist, Georg Wilhelm Steller, was sent ashore to investigate.

Steller soon deduced that the land they were anchored off was not Kamchatka. Arctic foxes roamed the shore in great numbers and seemed to have no fear of man; strange sea creatures (later called the Steller's sea cows) resembling enormous manatees grazed seaweed off of the shore. Since neither Arctic foxes nor manatees had ever been seen in Kamchatka, Steller returned to the ship and quietly told his dying and bedridden captain what he suspected. This could not be Kamchatka, the young naturalist said -- they must have blundered across an undiscovered island as only on remote islands did animals show no fear of man. Bering, not wishing to disappoint his men, took the news calmly and said simply, "It's too late to save our ship. God save the longboat!"

Over the next week, the crew ferried themselves to shore, the strong helping the weak and the weak continuing to die from scurvy, a disease owing to the lack of vitamin C in the body, but whose cause was unknown at the time. Both the dead and the living littered the shore as the first snows of winter began to fall, and waves crashed against the foundering ship. The few who were able dug a type of pit house and carried their ailing captain to it. Others had to go in search of food, stumbling upon the beached carcasses of fur seals or sea otters, and having to compete with the teaming Arctic foxes for the spoils. The foxes were so persistent, in fact, that if a sea otter carcass were found, one of the shipwrecked crew actually had to sleep on it to keep the foxes at bay. The Russian dead also fell prey to the foxes; unless they were quickly buried, the four-pound animals soon gnawed their fingers, toes, and noses off.

Although Bering himself died on Dec 8, 1741 and nearly one half of his crew perished, in the end it was the abundant sea life of Bering Island that saved them. Sea otters not only patrolled the island's coast in great quantities, but they also often went ashore and were virtually unafraid of man. The thickly-furred animals were so curious that they would even walk up the Russian's campfire! On warm days, the otters went up into the coastal valleys and played, rolling over and over and embracing one another with their paws. The starving Russians quickly slaughtered as many as they could find, even though they complained of the sea otters' foul taste. Tasty or not, the leathery meat slowly nourished the crew, who had existed for nearly a year on virtually nothing but stale biscuits and water. In late spring, the shipwrecked men spotted Northern fur seals arriving for their annual haul out. These, too, were killed and sustained the crew, who had begun building a small boat from the wreckage of the St. Peter. Although all three shipbuilders aboard the St. Peter had by now died of scurvy, fortunately a simple Siberian carpenter, Sava Starodubtsov, thought that he remembered how to build a ship. The 46 surviving crew members' lives depended on whether this one man's knowledge was sufficient or not.

Besides the survival of the carpenter, the crew had the additional fortune to discover and capture an enormous manatee-like animal that placidly fed on seaweed off of the coast -- the Steller's sea cow. The crew first caught a calf, stranded on the rocks at low tide. Its meat -- unlike that of the foxes, sea otters, fur seals and two rotten whales that they had eaten -- was delicious, tasting to the men like the finest beef. The sailors christened the enormous animals "sea cows," partly to distinguish them from the fish-eating fur seals (which Russians call colloquially "sea bears," as the fur seals' grizzled brown coats and aggressivness make them resemble Kamchatka's grizzly bears), and partly in recognition of their cow-like character, as they grazed among the seaweed. In June 1742, Bering's men killed their first sea cow. As the tide rolled in, the strongest crewman rowed quietly out to one of these placid and unsuspecting creatures and rammed a sharp hook into its back. The rest of the men on shore immediately began hauling on a long rope that was attached to the hook, trying to pull the animal in. Awash in its own blood, the nearly four-ton cow heaved back, dragging all 40 of the men into the water. Its breathing was labored, but otherwise it did not utter a sound during the long, gruelling tug-of-war that ensued. Eventually, the men succeeded in beaching the enormous animal, the first of many to come.

In the end, it was the sea cows' vast quantities of rich, seaweed-nourished meat and the relatively easy capture of these peaceful animals that fueled the Russian's efforts to build a new ship and escape from the island. On August 14, 1742, the surviving crew set sail from the shores of what would later be called Bering Island and headed to Kamchatka with barrels of salted sea cow meat aboard. Three weeks later, they landed in Petropavlovsk (named for the two ships commanded by Bering and that independently discovered Alaska, the St. Peter and the St. Paul), more than two years after they had set out on their voyage of discovery.

Although the surviving crew members of the St. Peter were saved, their salvation meant the eventual near extermination of wildlife on Bering Island. For the crew brought back to Kamchatka not only news of their discovery of Alaska, but also news of their shipwreck and miraculous survival on an unknown island. And not just any island, but one with an incredible abundance of both richly-furred sea otters and with "sea cows" -- enormous docile beasts with flesh as tasty as beef. Hordes of Siberian hunters soon set out for the newly-discovered islands, intent on becoming rich from sea otter pelts as sea otters elsewhere had been hunted to near extinction. Arriving on boats with only salt and flour, they soon filled their ships' holds with salted sea cow meat and sea otter pelts, eventually going on to do similar pillage among the newly-discovered Aleutian Islands.

By 1754, only 13 years after the discovery of Bering Island, a czarist envoy wrote that sea cows were being exterminated at such a rate that they would soon be eradicated. Groups of two or three hunters from Kamchatka, the envoy wrote, were "inflicting huge waste and destruction." The fact that the sea cows were so enormous that they could not be hauled out of the water did little to stop the hunters from taking stabs at them: most of their victims swam out to sea where they died of their wounds. The few sea cows that the hunters managed to kill in the water they tackled on the spot with knives, cutting out a few hunks of meat before letting the rest of the four-ton animals sink back into the sea. By 1768, only 27 years after they had been discovered, the Steller's sea cow had become extinct.

The abundant Northern fur seal rookeries that Bering's men found littering the island nearly met a similar fate to the Steller's sea cow. In the 18th century, seal hunters sailed away with up to 20,000 pelts. In the 19th century, following the sale of Alaska to the United States, the Commander Islands were leased to Hutchinson, Kohl, and Company for 20 years. These San Francisco fur traders managed to slaughter close to 800,000 Northern fur seals in that short period. By 1913, only two rookeries remained on the two islands, with a total of little more than 3,000 fur seals. Today, thanks to the protection of Russia, the population has increased to nearly a quarter of a million-still probably only a fraction of what Bering's men saw over two centuries earlier.

The Commander Islands' sea otters witnessed a simlar fate. By 1754, only 13 years after the discovery of Bering Island, the sea otter population there had been nearly wiped out. Miraculously, a tiny population survived and in 1924 sea otter hunting was prohibited. Today, nearly 4,000 sea otters exist among the Commander Islands, although they are no longer the fearless, credulous creatures that the naturalist Georg Steller once described.

Steller himself met an untimely end. He was only naturalist to have witnessed Bering Island's wildlife in its natural state and to have examined and described the Steller's sea cow before it became extinct. Steller took copious notes, gathered and collected numerous plant and animal specimens, and even dissected and preserved a Steller's sea cow, hoping to take it back to St. Petersburg if he and the shipwrecked crew ever escaped the island. Unfortunately, the preserved sea cow was jettisoned for lack of room by Steller's shipmates, and much of the rest of his collection was left behind. Steller himself -- imprisoned unjustly by Russian officials -- died during his return to St Petersburg at the age of 37. Many of his hand-written notes and manuscripts --painstakingly copied out in Latin under the difficult conditions of being shipwrecked during a harsh winter on an unknown island -- did survive and eventually made him posthumously famous. The Steller's sea eagle, Steller's sea cow, Steller's jay, and Steller's sea lion are just some of the animals named after this pioneering naturalist. Finally, some two centuries after his death, most of the Commander Islands -- including nearly three quarters of Bering Island -- were made part of a biosphere reserve in order to preserve the islands' rich natural history for future generations to come.

Filmmaker KimMacQuarrie

Vitus Bering

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