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Sunday, June 4, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The mystery of Steller's Curse

Special to The Times

By any measure, pioneering Pacific Northwest naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller lived a life that was as cursed as it was tragic.

Steller performed brilliantly as a naturalist and physician for Captain Vitus Bering's 1741 expedition to Alaska, recording hundreds of species and saving the crew from scurvy and shipwreck. Nonetheless, Steller returned to Russia discredited and hounded by Russian authorities. Four years later at the age of 37, he died a lonely death in Siberia, thousands of miles from home, much of his work lost or claimed by others. Even before he died, though, the Bering expedition he single-handedly saved had set in motion a torrent of exploitation that would overshadow Steller's scientific accomplishments and drive his most notable discoveries to extinction in mere decades.

In many ways, his life seems cursed - by bad luck, by the misfortunes of exploration and by the way he died, lonely and almost forgotten. Nor did Steller's curse die with him. It is still upon us today, written in the species that bear his name. Consider Steller's legacy with us today:

Of the mammals and birds named for the German-born naturalist - Steller's sea cow, Steller's spectacled cormorant, the Steller sea lion, Steller's sea eagle, Steller's eider, and Steller's jay - two are extinct and three are in serious decline. A disturbing number of the other species he discovered are in similar trouble. (Although his assistant, Stephan Krasheninnikov, was credited with the work, it was Steller who first recorded and described the life cycle of Pacific salmon, our most celebrated endangered species.)

Two hundred and fifty-four years after his death, it seems the curse of Georg Wilhelm Steller has grown to cover the entire North Pacific region in which we live.

The Bering Expedition

Trained in Germany as a naturalist, botanist and physician, Georg Wilhelm Steller was an exceptionally gifted scientist, who possessed a remarkable ability to observe and record every facet of an animal or plant species. Like the greatest naturalists, Steller possessed a sincere empathy and intuitive sense for the wonders of the natural world. Many of his descriptions of the species he discovered and described at sea under miserable conditions during his brief career still stand as textbook descriptions today.

Though Captain Bering's Kamchatka Expedition of 1741 is considered one of the era's great explorations for discovering Alaska and opening the uncharted North Pacific to Russian and European ships, the poorly planned and inadequately supplied voyage was a disaster in every other sense. When Bering's ship, the St. Peter, reached Alaska that July, the Arctic winter loomed and an anxious Bering allowed Steller only ten hours to explore before setting sail again for Russia.

Despite this brief visit, Steller recorded the first evidence of Alaskan natives, catalogued and preserved a host of plant, animal and bird species, including the first description of the bird we know all over this area today as Steller's jay. It was this bird, which he recognized to be a cousin to the American bluejay, that convinced Steller they'd reached America.

On the return voyage, the St. Peter was beset by foul weather and a jagged coastline that slowed the ship's progress. That, plus a disastrous outbreak of scurvy eroded the crew's ability to control the ship. As days turned to weeks, the St. Peter lurched along the Aleutian Island chain. The voyage was running critically short on food, water and able-bodied sailors. Finally, in November 1741, as the Arctic winter unleashed its fury, the ship foundered on a foreboding island today known as Bering Island.

It was here that Steller used his knowledge of plants and his medical skills to save the crew of the St. Peter. Thirteen years before James Lind established the dietary causes of scurvy, Steller independently devised a cure using "antiscorbutic" herbs he found on Bering Island, stemming the epidemic, though not before one-third of the crew had perished.

During the long months shipwrecked on Bering Island, Steller turned his attentions to studying the island's indigenous animal and plant species. In the midst of the misery of shipwreck and starvation, Steller discovered his sea eagle, spectacled cormorant and eider duck, wrote his definitive description of the Steller sea lion, sea otter, and northern fur seal, and collected and described more than 200 plant species.

Of all the discoveries Steller recorded on the ill-fated voyage, though, it was the northern sea cow that established his brilliance as a naturalist and gave birth to the curse that hangs over the North Pacific to this day.

Steller's sea cow

During his nine-month ordeal on Bering Island, Steller frequently observed the sea cows grazing in small herds on the abundant offshore kelp beds and was able to dissect an adult female caught by the crew. Though his drawings and specimens were lost, Steller's written account in De Bestiis Marinis remains as the only scientific account of this magnificent marine creature (one of the largest mammalian herbivores ever) that once inhabited the North Pacific.

A cold-water relative of the endangered dugongs and manatees of the southern oceans - notably Florida's coastal waters, sea cows were gentle, toothless giants that grew as big as 32 feet long and 22 feet around at their thickest point. They weighed between four and 10 tons. Their thick, blubber-laden skin was dark and rough, like the bark of an old oak tree, and in contrast to their immense bulk, they had small heads and used stubby foreflippers to wade through kelp beds.

Though sea cows didn't appear to be particularly intelligent, Steller described a mammal that possessed many human-like traits. These gentle marine vegetarians were monogamous and kept strong family bonds.

In his journal, Steller described the following episode as the marooned sailors landed a sea cow: "It is a most remarkable proof of their conjugal affection that the male, after having tried with all his might, although in vain, to free the female caught by the hook, and in spite of the beating we gave him, nevertheless followed her to the shore, and that several times, even after she was dead, he shot unexpectedly up to her like a speeding arrow." For days afterward, the male sea cow returned to mourn over his mate's dead body.

Admirable qualities aside, the meaty sea cows represented a rich and tasty food source that, along with Steller's spectacled cormorant, a large, flightless bird, gave the men enough strength to build a new ship from the wrecked hulk of the St. Peter and escape the island.

The survivors returned to Kamchatka on the Russian side of the Pacific in August of 1742, bringing with them one item that settled Steller's Curse: sea otter pelts.

Hordes of hunters followed the Bering expedition into the North Pacific, inspired not by Steller's curiosity about the natural world, but by greed. They turned to the abundant and easy-to-catch Steller's sea cow for nourishment during forays into the North Pacific. A single adult sea cow could sustain a crew of 33 men for a month. In what is best described as an orgy of unrestrained slaughter, fur hunters extinguished Steller's sea cow in a single generation. Russian officials, aware of the decimation, declined petitions to prevent their extinction. The last known Steller's sea cow was killed on Bering Island in 1767, just 25 years after Steller's discovery. The last spectacled cormorant disappeared around 1850.

Though such slaughter seems a relic of a brutal, by-gone age, Steller's Curse did not disappear with the sea otter hunters. Steller sea lion populations in Alaska have crashed since the 1970s. In a similarly brief period, Steller's eider duck populations have fallen by approximately two-thirds and are currently listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Steller's sea eagle, a Kamchatka resident, is declining as well.

Cause of decline hard to find

If direct exploitation is not the cause then what is pushing Steller's survivors to extinction? Unlike our Pacific salmon, where linkages are well understood, Steller's Curse is not so easily discerned. Environmental problems affecting the North Pacific are all too familiar: hazardous oil spills and pollution, overfishing, global warming, logging and habitat destruction. But which cause is implicated in a specific species' decline is difficult to say.

The decline in Steller sea lions is possibly explained by competition from factory trawlers that catch Alaskan pollock, which the sea lions eat. We know that massive fishing operations can alter marine food webs, but the ways this fishery affects Steller seal lions are not fully understood.

Equally mysterious is the decline in Steller's eider, a mollusk-eating sea duck that has disappeared from most of its ancient Alaskan nesting grounds, despite much of this territory being protected from major development.

Perhaps answers can be found in the large-scale changes that have come over the past two centuries. The vast, pristine wilderness of the North Pacific that Georg Wilhelm Steller saw is gone.

Were he to return today, Steller would easily find evidence of a marine system bearing many stresses. As he peered into the water he might find that what looked like a jellyfish was instead a plastic shopping bag, a mistake a feeding sea turtle can make but once. He might see the plastic baubles that albatross parents mistakenly feed their chicks.

He would see the pile of beachcast fishing net, full of seabirds, sea lions and fish that came looking for an easy dinner. He would see a Russian and North American coastline inhabited by millions of people, displacing natural habitat and spilling pollution into the water and air. But he would miss the sea floor scraped bare from bottom trawling, as he would miss the ghost nets drifting through the depths.

Nor would Steller see the invisible toxic chemicals that bathe the creatures of even the deepest and remotest areas of the ocean and that accumulate in the top predators, the orcas, tunas and billfish.

Today's environmental problems accumulate incrementally, sometimes too slowly for us to detect. Scientists cannot easily unravel the complex details that have altered the structure of the North Pacific. But we don't need an environmental smoking gun to conclude that things are very wrong in the place where we live. The sentinels - Steller's survivors - are warning us through their declines.

Not all Steller's species are dwindling or gone. When you look out your window at a noisy, handsome blue and charcoal Steller's jay, know that you are seeing the lucky one, the one that escaped Steller's Curse.

Like other members of the crow family, this intelligent and cheeky bird seems to have adapted well to the altered environment we have created throughout the North Pacific. But perhaps the Steller's jay is more than lucky. Perhaps it is a symbol, a reminder that Steller's Curse is a scourge of our making, not his. Perhaps the creatures doomed by the Curse could have been saved if we had chosen to look at the North Pacific with the eyes of Georg Wilhelm Steller, with wonder and appreciation.

Chris Carrel is a writer based in Federal Way. Lance Morgan, Ph.D., is a marine biologist with Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Redmond. MCBI is a nonprofit marine biology conservation organization. It can be reached at www.mcbi.org.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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