Steller's sea-cows with Kotick the white seal – an 1895 engraving for 'The White Seal', from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (public domain)
"By the Great Combers of Magellan!" he said, beneath his moustache. "Who in the Deep Sea are these people?"
They were like no walrus, sea-lion, seal, bear, whale, shark, fish, squid, or scallop that Kotick [the white seal] had ever seen before. They were between twenty and thirty feet long, and they had no hind flippers, but a shovel-like tail that looked as if it had been whittled out of wet leather. Their heads were the most foolish-looking things you ever saw, and they balanced on the ends of their tails in deep water when they weren't grazing, bowing solemnly to each other and waving their front flippers as a fat man waves his arm.
"Ahem!" said Kotick. "Good sport, gentlemen?" The big things answered by bowing and waving their flippers like the Frog-Footman [from Alice's Adventures In Wonderland]. When they began feeding again Kotick saw that their upper lip was split into two pieces that they could twitch apart about a foot and bring together again with a whole bushel of seaweed between the splits. They tucked the stuff into their mouths and chumped solemnly…
"Well!" said Kotick. "You're the only people I've ever met uglier than Sea Vitch – and with worse manners."
Then he remembered in a flash what the Burgomaster gull had screamed to him when he was a little yearling at Walrus Islet, and he tumbled backward in the water, for he knew that he had found Sea Cow at last.
Rudyard Kipling – 'The White Seal', from The Jungle Book
Back in the 1800s, naturalists were much more open to zoological anomalies, mysteries, and curiosities, including those of the cryptozoological kind, than they are today. Never was this openness more readily visible, however, than in the pages of a fascinating British monthly periodical entitled The Zoologist (published 1843-1916), which was packed throughout with contributions from amateur wildlife enthusiasts and eminent biologists alike on every conceivable (and inconceivable!) aspect of natural and, especially, unnatural history.
Today, conversely, such oddities that cannot be readily pigeon-holed into 'acceptable', mainstream zoological categories rarely receive widespread hard-copy coverage outside of newspapers and Fortean publications – which is why Flying Snake, a periodical founded, published, edited, and lovingly compiled every 4-6 months by the indefatigable, inestimable cryptozoological and animal anomalies researcher Richard Muirhead is such an absolute delight, a veritable diamond among so much modern-day dross, especially online.
Steller's sea-cow, depicted on a local postage stamp issued for Russia's Commander (=Komandorski) Islands, a 17-strong group situated in the Bering Sea (east of the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East), and around which this huge sea mammal once lived (public domain)
A natural, very worthy successor to The Zoologist, this wonderful little journal contains so much extraordinary, non-conventional Nature, the kind that cannot be readily found in any other present-day publication, that whenever I receive the latest issue I know full well that once I have opened it I shall find it impossible to put down until I have read it from cover to cover.
In the April 2014 issue (vol. 3, #7), however, Richard surpassed even his superlative ability to surprise me with his researches, by virtue of this issue's front cover-highlighted lead article. It consisted of an investigation conducted by Richard that quite simply took my breath away – by featuring the history and two vintage photographs (one of which appeared on the front cover) of what has seemingly long been claimed to be a bona fide torso skin (i.e. lacking the head, flippers, and tail) of Hydrodamalis [=Rhytina] gigas, the long-extinct Steller's sea-cow!
The front cover of Flying Snake, April 2014, showcasing one of the two vintage photographs uncovered by Richard that allegedly depict a preserved Steller's sea-cow skin (© Richard Muirhead/Flying Snake – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
As I have documented in greater detail within an earlier ShukerNature article (click here to read it), at up to 30 ft long Steller's sea-cow was by far the largest modern-day species of sirenian ever to have existed, very significantly bigger than the dugong and any of the manatees that still survive today. It was discovered in shallow waters around the Commander (aka Komandorski) Islands in what was later dubbed the Bering Sea, separating Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula from Alaska, by Arctic explorer Dr Georg W. Steller in 1741, during Danish explorer Vitus Bering's Russian expeditions there. Tragically, however, the inoffensive, unafraid behaviour of this huge herbivorous marine mammal, coupled with the abundance and very tasty nature of its meat, swiftly proved to be its undoing, dooming it to a rapid extinction despite its great numbers. For it was mercilessly, relentlessly slaughtered by hungry mariners penetrating its icy, inhospitable domain.
By 1768, Steller's sea-cow was no more, exterminated from the Commander Islands' coastal waters that had been its home since time immemorial. Having said that, there have been infrequent subsequent reports from various remote Arctic outposts of extremely large, mystifying sea beasts that may – just may – be surviving sea-cows, but none has ever been confirmed.
Reconstruction of Dr Georg W. Steller measuring a Steller's sea cow on Bering Island, 12 July 1742 (public domain)
As for preserved physical remains of this veritable behemoth: a number of museums around the world have skeletons (complete, partial, or composite), skulls (ditto), or isolated bones (limb bones, vertebrae, ribs, etc) from Steller's sea-cows (click here to access an extensive listing of such specimens).
In addition, there are a few scraps of preserved skin on record that have been claimed to be from this lost species, but there are also counterclaims averring that they are actually from seals or cetaceans. According to the above listing of specimens, one such scrap is present in the Überseemuseum at Bremen, Germany (a photograph of it snapped on 29 January 2011 by Flickriver user MareCrisium can be viewed here). A second is (or was) held by Germany's Hamburg Zoological Museum (it may have been destroyed by bombing during World War II, and the above listing presumes that it is/was a misinterpreted whale skin anyway). And a third is held by the Zoological Institute of the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg, Russia (queried in the listing as a probable whale skin fragment again, and originally discovered in the Institute's collections by an A. Brandt). However, no museum or scientific institution anywhere in the world lays claim of any kind to possessing an entire torso skin from such a creature – which is why Richard's report and accompanying photographs were of such profound interest to me.
Skeleton of a Steller's sea-cow at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France (© FunkMonk/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
I strongly recommend everyone interested in this case to read Richard's original article, but in the meantime here is a summary of what he uncovered.
It all began with a local newspaper article. On 6 April 1956, the Kansas City Star in the U.S.A. published the photograph that appears on the above-reproduced front cover of Flying Snake for April 2014, together with the following details. The person holding the torso skin, and pictured with it in her East Tenth Street, Intercity District, Kansas home's living room, was Mrs Faye Keyton, who had inherited it jointly with her brother, W.L. Shafer, from their aunt, Miss Myrtle Shafer, who had died in May 1955. It was normally kept rolled up inside a long cardboard tube, was quite stiff, and according to Mrs Keyton it was an Alaskan Indian burial robe that had been made from the skin of a Steller's sea-cow. But how did she know this?
Vintage photograph from the late 1800s/very early 1900s depicting Prof. Willoughby with the burial robe (public domain)
Keyton revealed that her aunt had herself inherited it, from Jim Willoughby, a distant relative, who in turn had received it from his father, a certain Prof. Richard ('Dick') D. Willoughby (1832-1902), who had lived in Alaska for half a century, where he had been made an Indian chief and spoke their language. The robe was one of his possessions that he had acquired there during that period, and when he died in 1902 it was placed over him during his funeral as part of a native Alaskan Indian burial ceremony.
Reading this intriguing little history, I was immediately struck by the curious fact that there was no explanation as to why or how this robe was ever deemed to be the skin of a Steller's sea-cow. All that I can assume is that it had been labelled as such by Prof. Willoughby himself, with that identity having subsequently been accepted unquestioningly by, and duly passed on down through, the generations of the robe's inheritors. Unfortunately, however, this in turn leads to a major problem in accepting such an identification. For as revealed by Richard Muirhead in his Flying Snake article, Willoughby was a notorious practical joker and had a longstanding reputation as a teller of exceedingly tall tales. He was also known for attaching highly imaginative and often decidedly lurid back-stories to the many curios contained in his house that he had gathered from different parts of the Alaskan coast, many of which were of native Alaskan Indian origin. Taking all of this into account, it is by no means certain, therefore, that the robe really was a Steller's sea-cow skin – this could just as easily have been yet another fanciful yarn spun by Willoughby.
Steller's sea-cow model at London's Natural History Museum (© Emöke Dénes/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)
But that is not all. Based upon direct eyewitness descriptions and sketches of Steller's sea-cow by Steller himself and other maritime travellers during the all-too-brief period of time spanning this species' discovery and destruction, the robe doesn't look at all like the skin of this officially extinct species. For whereas the latter's skin was said to be rough and spotted, this robe is smooth and bears two very distinctive, highly conspicuous white rings upon it as well as an upper and a lower white band. True, the robe's leather may have been tanned, making it smooth, but those very large white rings and bands are unlike anything ever recorded for Steller's sea-cow. In addition, judging from the photographs and allowing for forced perspective (in both photos, the skin was closer to the camera than the person was, thereby making the former appear bigger than it actually was), the skin was far smaller than any but the youngest of juvenile sea-cows would have been.
One of Richard's correspondents, regular Flying Snake contributor Richard George, opined that he was certain that these distinctive markings had been painted on the skin. Bearing in mind that it was used as a ceremonial burial robe, adding such decorations to it as some form of symbolic representation would not be at all beyond the realms of possibility. If only the robe could be examined directly, however – this would soon determine whether they were a natural component of it or had been artificially added. Moreover, with today's advances in DNA analyses, a sample of tissue taken from it would readily reveal the true taxonomic nature of the species from which the skin had been obtained. But therein lies a fundamental problem – its current whereabouts are presently unknown.
After reading Richard's article, I did consider attempting to trace the robe, by pursuing the current whereabouts of Mrs Keyton, her brother, or any children that either of them may have had. However, as so often happens, other matters diverted my attention, and eventually I forgot about this mysterious object – until this week, that is.
After having read with my usual enthusiasm the latest, newly-published issue (#14, January 2019) of Flying Snake a few days ago, I was about to place it with the other 13 issues on their allotted shelf in my study's cryptozoological section when, while idly flicking through them, I noticed the front cover of the April 2014 issue once more, the first time that I'd looked at it in a very long while – but this time something suddenly clicked inside my mind. I know that ringed patterning on the robe! I've seen it somewhere before, somewhere else.
Steller's sea-cow (right) with a Steller's sea lion and a northern fur seal, from a map of the Commander Islands drawn by Sven Waxell in 1891 (public domain)
Sitting there in thought, I recalled the above-linked listing of Steller's sea-cow material held by various museums around the world, and in particular I remembered those controversial fragments of skin that a few of the museums possessed, claimed by some to be genuine Steller's sea-cow relics but by others to be derived from whales or seals.
And then, without warning, an image flashed into my mind – an image of an extremely distinctive species of sea mammal, one that, uniquely, possessed exactly the same ringed pelage as was so visibly present on the Alaskan burial robe, but a species that unlike Steller's sea-cow was still very much alive today. Suddenly, I knew exactly what the Alaskan burial robe had been obtained from – and it most definitely was not a Steller's sea-cow!
Instead, it was from an exceptionally beautiful, exquisitely marked species of phocid (earless) seal – namely, Histriophoca fasciata, the ribbon or banded seal. Up to 5 ft long, it is native to the Arctic and subarctic regions of the northern Pacific Ocean, but especially the Bering Sea…separating Russia from Alaska! Moreover, it is immediately distinguished from all other seal species (and all other species of any kind of mammal, for that matter) by virtue of the two very large white circles on its body (one on each side) and also the two wide white bands encircling its neck and tail respectively that collectively decorate very strikingly its otherwise uniformly dark-brown or black pelage.
All that I needed to do now in order to be absolutely certain was to uncover if I could a photograph of a torso skin of a ribbon seal to compare it directly with the Alaskan burial robe, and once I was on the trail it didn't take me long to find an excellent example. Comparing the two side by side, they were virtually identical, as shown below. Consequently, there could be absolutely no doubt whatsoever – just like so many other examples of his yarns on record, Willoughby's Steller's sea-cow skin was nothing but a tall tale. It was in reality the skin of a ribbon seal. Case closed.
Comparing Willoughby's Alaskan burial skin (left) with the skin of a ribbon seal (right) (© Kansas City Star, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only / public domain)
I am delighted that Richard Muirhead brought this fascinating but hitherto little-publicised case to cryptozoological attention with his customary investigative zeal via his Flying Snake article, and that I in turn have been able to provide the solution to the longstanding riddle that its subject posed.
For anyone seeking more information concerning Flying Snake, a publication that I thoroughly recommend to everyone interested in the more unusual, unexpected facets of natural history, please click here.
Finally: although the following flying snake illustration has nothing to do whatsoever either with Richard's periodical or with Steller's sea-cow, its fictional subject is nonetheless cryptozoological in nature and is such an extraordinary image in its own right that it deserves to be included here, especially as at least to my knowledge it has never before been featured in any cryptozoological article. So here it is, from the front cover of an issue of an American men's magazine entitled Man's Conquest:
Front cover of the March 1967 issue of Man's Conquest, depicting an attack of flying snakes, the subject of a fiction short story contained inside (© Man's Conquest – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)