Encyclopaedia of Cryptozoology
Steller's sea cow
Pallas Sea Cow

A depiction of a sea cow thought to have been drawn from a recently-killed individual.

Category Lazarus taxon
Proposed scientific names Hydrodamalis gigas (Zimmerman, 1780)
Other names Kapustnik
Country reported Bering Sea
First reported 1768
Prominent investigators • A. E. Nordensköld
Roy P. Mackal
Loren Coleman

Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) was a species of giant sirenian, native to the Bering Sea, discovered in 1741. It is officially considered to have been extinct since 1768, within 21 years of its discovery, but a number of sightings suggest to cryptozoologists that it, or a similar unknown species or subspecies, may still survive in very remote portions of the Bering Sea, although claims of misidentified female narwhals (Monodon monoceras) have also been suggested.[1][2][3][4]

Historical range[]

Fossil evidence shows that during the Pleistocene, the range of Steller's sea cow also included the coasts of Japan and the western United States, as far south as California. The question of Steller's sea cow's range is an important one cryptozoologically, as modern sightings occur away from Bering Island. Several cryptozoologists including Mackal, Coleman, and Michel Raynal[5] have speculated that some Steller's sea cows might have avoided extinction by spreading into new regions, explaining why more recent sightings place the animals further afield.[4] Alternatively, it has long been suspected that the range of Steller's sea cow may have been larger than thought.[2]



Roy P. Mackal mentioned occasional vague reports of sea cows from Aleutian people, particularly from around Attu and Kamchatka, as well as rumours of a smaller kind of sea cow in the western Aleutian Islands. Writing in 1777, the explorer and naturalist Peter Simon Pallas reported that plenty of "manatees" were to be found in the western Aleutians, but not in the eastern Aleutians.[2] In the 1950's, a harpooner named Ivan Skripkin claimed that 32' finless animals appeared near Bering Island every July.[1]

Loren Coleman and Dale A. Drinnon suggest that a number of sea monsters reported from the Arctic Archipelago, Baffin Bay, and Hudson's Bay, described as resembling upturned boats and frequently colliding with kayaks, might refer to living sea cows which moved east.[6] Drinnon also mentions reports of similar sea monsters from the Siberian coast, the Chukchi Sea, and the Laptev Sea. A similar description is given for Greenland's lake monster kajanok agdlinartok.[7] Coleman writes that marine biologists Bret Weinstein and James Patton have noted "vague reports" of sea cows from "along the northwest coast of North America and the northeast coast of Asia, in the Arctic Ocean, and near Greenland".[6]


A. E. Nordensköld interviewed a number of Bering Islanders about Steller's sea cow during his Arctic expedition in 1879. One man, Pitr Vasilijef Burdukovskij,[4] claimed that during the first two or three years of his father's time on the island (i.e. from 1777 until 1779 or 1780), sea cows were still being killed, as their hearts were eaten and their hides were used to make boats.[2] Leonhard Stejneger, who also interviewed the Bering Island Aeuluts on the subject, felt that Nordensköld had misinterpreted Burdukovskij, and that his father had actually arrived on Bering Island in 1774, not 1777,[4] though Burdukovskij's allegations would still push back the sea cow's extinction date by a few years even in this case.


An Aleut woman interviewed by Lucien Turner claimed that her father had observed sea cows off the coast of Attu, in the Aleutians, sometime during the middle of the 19th Century.[1]


Two of the islanders interviewed by Nordensköld, Feodor Merchenin and Nicanor Stepnoff, claimed to have seen an animal unknown to them off the east side of Bering Island some 25 years before, in about 1854. The men described the animal as a very large (15' was visible above the surface) brown-skinned creature with no dorsal fin, small forefeet, and a tapering body which was thicker closer to the head. Although it spouted water, it used its large mouth to do so, not a blow-hole, as in whales.[4] Nordensköld believed the animal had been a sea cow.[2]


A fisherman claimed to have seen a dead sea cow washed up on the beach of the Cape of Chaplin near the Gulf of Anadyr[1] in either 1910,[1] or sometime between 1911 and 1913.[4]


A January 1924 report in the Gippsland Times claims that fishermen in the Aleutians had recently claimed to have seen "one or more" Arctic sea-cows, described as having a fish's hindquarters and the head and neck of an ox.[8][9]


A famous sea cow sighting was alleged to have occurred in July 1962, near Cape Navarin, south of the Gulf of Anadyr. The eyewitnesses were whalers and fishermen, the crew of the whaler Buran. The first time they saw the animals, they were observed offshore from a distance of less than 100 meters. The following day, the herd of half-a-dozen was seen again in a shallow lagoon supporting meadows of seaweed and sea cabbage. The lagoon never froze over during the winter, and some of the sea cabbages found there were of a type known to have been favoured by Steller's sea cows.[3][2]

The animals were described to Russian scientists A. A. Berzin, E. A. Tikhomirov, and V. I. Tronin as 20' to 26' long, with dark skin, a small head clearly differentiated from the body with an apparent harelip, and a bilobate tail with "a sort of fringe along the edge". They swam slowly, regularly submerging and surfacing.[2]


A 1976[4] sighting of a beached sea cow occurred in Anapkinskaya Bay (south of Cape Navarin), according to an article in the Petropavlovsk newspaper Kamchatsky Komsomolets. The eyewitnesses, salmon factory workers interviewed by Vladimir Malukovich, described the animal they saw as dark-skinned, with flippers and a forked tail like a whale. Its ribs were noticeable, and its head had an "unusual form," with a long snout.[2] One man, Ivan Nikiforovich Chechulin, walked up to and touched the stranded animal. Malukovich showed him images of various sea creatures, out of which Nikiforovich selected the picture of Steller's sea cow as the animal he had seen.[4]


The skeleton of a sea cow was alleged to have been discovered on "a Soviet island" in 1983.[6]


In the summer of 2006, a skipper reported a sighting of a 12' long "manatee" off the Washington Coast in the United States. The animal stayed at the surface for about two minutes, and, looking it in the eye, he was certain that it was a manatee.[10]

Alternate explanations[]


A female narwhal (Monodon monoceros) has frequently been put forward to explain alleged sea cow sightings as mistaken identity.

Elephant seal

A stray northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) has been suggested for the 1976 sighting.

Female narwhals (Monodon monoceros), which do not have the famous tusks of the males, have frequently been cited as possible explanations for alleged Steller's sea cow sightings.[1] Leonhard Stejneger concluded that the 1854 sea cow was in fact a narwhal after interviewing eyewitnesses Merchenin and Stepnoff, a conclusion with which Bernard Heuvelmans agreed.[3] Later, zoologists speculated that the herd of "sea cows" reported by the Buran in 1962 were in fact a group of female narwhals. In this case, however, Karl Shuker writes that the whalers' description fits a sea cow "more closely than a female narwhal, and it seems unlikely that experienced whalers would fail to recognise such a familiar creature".[4] Roy Mackal was of the same opinion, writing that he was not prepared to lightly dismiss animals seen by experienced whalers as misidentified narwhals.[2]

An alternative theory regarding the 1976 sighting is that the animal, particularly due to its unusual head shape and long snout, as well as its tail shape, was a stray northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris).[6] These seals are sometimes known to stray from their normal migration route to the Gulf of Alaska during the spring.[1]

Bernard Heuvelmans theorised that certain sea cow sightings are not of Steller's sea cows at all, but of an undiscovered but closely related species or subspecies, more agile than Steller's sea cow and with a less specialised diet.[3][11] Mackal also suggested a subspecies as one possible identity for the alleged Aleutian sea cows.[2]

As an explanation for other cryptids[]

Bernard Heuvelmans wrote that Steller's sea cow "agrees very well with" his many-humped sea serpent type, with a blunt head, bilobate tail, humped back, and bark-like skin, leading him to suggest it, alongside a highly-specialised species of related sirenian, as an identity for certain reports of that type.[3] Michael Woodley, however, finds such an identity unlikely.[12]

A form of long-necked sirenian related to Steller's sea cow has been proposed as an explanation for the Loch Ness monster. Mackal initially regarded a sirenian as the likeliest mammalian identity for the Loch Ness monster, and Steller's sea cow in particular as the most suitable sirenian. The Monsters of Loch Ness (1976) includes a reconstruction of a sea cow featuring two humps and a head held above the water, and Mackal found it possible, but unlikely, for a sirenian to evolve a long neck. Nevertheless, in Mackal's final tally of identities compared with the Loch Ness monster's reported attributes, the sirenian identity received the lowest score, with 15/32 matches, a percentage of 47%.[13]

Known hoaxes[]

Burial robe[]

Sea cow burial robe

Richard Willoughby with his Alaskan burial robe.

A stiff leather ceremonial burial robe of unknown age, allegedly made from the hide of a Steller's sea cow, was acquired by Alaskan pioneer Richard Willoughby (1832 — 1902), who was noted as a practical joker and teller of "tall stories". The robe was inherited by a distant relative, Faye Keyton, in 1956, and its current whereabouts are unknown.[8]

Richard Muirhead pointed out that the thin, smooth robe does not match either preserved pieces of supposed sea cow skin or Steller's original description of the animal, both of which attest to the sea cow's rough, tough, wrinkled skin. Furthermore, boats made from sea cow hide were said to have been rather perishable. Other possible sources of the pelt suggested by Muirhead included minke whales, humpback whales, and southern right whales.[8] Some years later, Karl Shuker recognised the patterning of the robe, long assumed to have been painted on, as the markings of a ribbon seal (Histriophoca fasciata).[14]

Similar cryptids[]

Steller reported a number of other animals which are not currently known to science: Steller's sea ape, Steller's sea raven, and Steller's sea bear (which he did not personally see).

Notes and references[]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Eberhart, George M. (2002) Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology, ABC-CLIO, Inc., ISBN 1576072835
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 2.9 Mackal, Roy P. (1980) Searching for Hidden Animals: An Inquiry Into Zoological Mysteries, Cadogan Books, ISBN 978-0946313051
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Heuvelmans, Bernard (1968) In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, Hart-Davis, ISBN 9780246643124
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 Shuker, Karl P. N. ShukerNature: STELLER'S SECRET FAUNA – GARGANTUAN SEA-COWS, INACCESSIBLE SEA-RAVENS, AND BEWHISKERED SEA-MONKEYS karlshuker.blogspot.com [Accessed 27 June 2019]
  5. Raynal, Michel "Does the Steller's Sea Cow Still Survive?," INFO Journal 51 (February 1987)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Coleman, Loren & Huyghe, Patrick (2003) The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep, TarcherPerigree, ISBN 978-1585422524
  7. Drinnon, Dale A. (2009) "Amended Cryptozoological Checklist"
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Muirhead, Richard "The Complete Skin of a Steller's Sea-Cow?," Flying Snake Vol. 3, No. 7 (April 2014)
  9. "Sea-Cow Seen," The Gippsland Times (15 January 1924)
  10. Coleman, Loren Cryptomundo >> Steller’s Sea Cow Sighting? cryptomundo.com [Accessed 15 February 2019]
  11. Coudray, Philippe (2009) Guide des Animaux Cachés, Editions du Mont, ISBN 978-2915652383
  12. Woodley, Michael (2008) In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans: An Introduction to the History and Future of Sea Serpent Classification, CFZ Press, ISBN 978-1905723201
  13. Mackal, Roy P. (1976) The Monsters of Loch Ness, Futura Publications Limited, ISBN 9780860073819
  14. Shuker, Karl P. N. ShukerNature: SEALING THE IDENTITY OF AN ALLEGED STELLER'S SEA-COW SKIN karlshuker.blogspot.com (25 March 2019) [Accessed 7 September 2020]