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An Extinct Sea-cow

An Extinct Sea-cow image
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Un a black day in JNovernber, llii, more than one hnndred and forty years ago, a Russian ship which had been driven through icy seas at the mercy of winds and waves, carne to a small harbor on an unknown and rock-bound coast. On board the ship was the Artic explorer Behring, who on a previous voyage had discovered the strait which separate i Asia from America, and which bears bis name. Many of the men who were with Captain Behring were sick and dying, and any harbor was welcome. Althougb. not a tree or shrub of any kind could be seen on the desolate shore, the barren rocks and sand heaps were better than the stormy 'sea. After anchoring the vessel those of the crew who were strongest went on shore. They found a siream of fresh water which was not yet irozen over, although the sides of the mountains were coveredj with snow. Along the banks of this stream the men made hollows in the sand which they roofed over with sails brought from the ship, and to these rude shelters they removed their sick companions. The cold grew more bitter eyery day, and many of the sick men died from want of food and proper care. On the 8th of December the party had the mis fortune to lose the commander, Captain Behring. He died after great sutfering, and was buried on the desolate shore. Not long after his death a great storm arose, and the vessel, the omy moaas of escape of these poor sailors. was wrecked upon the roeky coast. There was but a small portion of the ship's provisions remaining, and forty-five men were left with no hope of escape for months to come. The situation was dreadful, but the men faced it like true héroes. Instead of setting on the cliffs and watching for a sail, in those far-off regions might never appear, they at once set to work to see what they could do to help themselves. The first thing to do was to secure all the beams and timbers of the wreoked vessel before another storm could sweep them away, Huppily the carpenter's toolshadall been brought on shore, and although three of the Russian carpenters had died, there was a Cossack among the crew who had once worked in a shipyard, and who was able to direct the building of a new vessel. It was decidcd to begin the new ship as soon as the snow molted so the men could work, and meanwhile they must discover whero they had been cast ashore, and if the land conteined anything to support life. About ten miles from the coast was a high hill, and on climbing to the top the men found that they were on a large island. This island, now known as Behring Island, in honor of its discoverer who lies buried in its sands, is the most westerly of the Aleutian group, and at the time these poor Russian havigators were cast away on it was uninhabited, except by foxes and other wild animáis The creature that was to play the most impoitant part in saving the lives and health of these shipwrecked mea was a sea-cow To their great delight they found large herds of these creatures living in the bays and inlets of the rocky shore. They belong to the same family as the sea-cows which are to be seen all along the Amazons and in swampy coast lands of the West Indies and the Gulf of Mexico, but were niuch larger than those found in tropical seas. Steller, the naturalist of Captain Behring's expedition, studied their hibits carefully during his forced stay on the desolate island, and the creature is now known in natural history as Steller's sea-cow. It was a very largo beast, measuring in length from twcnty-eight to thirtyfive feet, and weighing over live hundred pounds. In formit was similar than a huge seal or sea-lion, and its forel flippers were armed with stout nails, i i wíth which it toro up the sea-wecd and i water-grasses which served for its food. s These sea-cows were very sociable 1 animáis, and lived in large herds like 2 cattle. They livod mostly in the water but woukl sometimos crawl on the shore f and sleep for hours and even days is among the wet sea-grasses. They were y very ugly-looking creatures, and thei e movemeñts on shore were elumsy anc awkward. The head was small, the mouth large; the hide, covered with scattering short stift' hair, lay in great wrinkles all over the huge body. Wlien the Russian sailors iirst saw these beasts they were puzzled how to capture one; but starvation was almost upon them, and food must be obtained at any price. The animáis were not afraid of men for they had evidently never seen human beings before, and were not suspicious of evil. At length one was secured by means of a harpoon, and to the great relief of the men the flesh was fouml to be similar in fiavor to beef, while the thick coating of fat withwhich the creature was covered nhder its skin was useful as lard. Good and wholesome food was now abundant, as more sea-cows were captured and killed, and the men went to work to build their ship, their hearts filled with courage and hope. It was slow work, as their materials were poor; but at length a small vessel was completed and successfully launched, and about the middle of August the men set sail from the island where so many of their forincr comrades were buried The ship was well supplied with salted and dried sea-cow beef, and after a voyage of eleven daya a small port on the coast of Kamtchatka was reached in safety. But there were sad days in store for tho poor and defenseless sea-cows. The escaped sailors told wonderful stories of these creatures, and soon other sailors, especially those in charge of whaling ships, sought out the island, and waged relentlcss war upon the sea-cows, which proved valuable for their strong stout hides, the nourishing ment, which, ed or dried would keep for a whele year, and for the immense quantity of 'fat- an article niuch valued in the cold countries of the f ar North. 60 extensive was the slaughter of the sea-cows thatin less than tliirty years not a single animal remained. Many explorers of more recent times have tried in vain to find one of the ani mals described by Steller; but it seems to be entirely extinct, and the only traces which have been discovered, are a few skeletons bleaching on the barren sanrt.


Ann Arbor Courier
Old News