July 12, 2021
Bering Glacier from orbit; 80 miles across. There are probably no people in this picture. (Photo: NASA)
We left Torch Bay before dawn on July 9th and made the 130-mile, 16-hour run up the coast ahead of a storm, rounding Point Carrew and entering Yakutat Bay late in the afternoon. It had been a choppy run. We hadn't seen another boat.
Now in calm water, we pulled up the paravanes – we’d had them out the whole trip – and headed into the much smaller Monti Bay, with the village of Yakutat, population 620, spread around all three sides. With bad weather coming, the anchorage seemed a little exposed to me, so we motored another a mile and a half northwest and anchored in a wooded cove called Rurik Harbor. Up here, harbors don’t necessarily have docks or buildings. This one is completely undeveloped, just a snug anchorage.
The next morning – yesterday – I took our shore boat into town, beaching the Scout at the head of Monti Bay and walking up the hill. There’s a post office, and across the wide road, a coffee shop (closed), and a bar (open). This is the only public bar between Gustavus, 175 nautical miles south, and Cordova, 220 nautical miles north. The bar is community-owned and is exceptionally well maintained.
I struck up a conversation with a man named John, who was building a wooden ramp from the parking area to the front door of the bar. John, 66, has been a commercial fisherman, guide, gold prospector, and carpenter in the area for 35 years. His work on the ramp was first-rate, to my eye.
John told me that back in 1996, he and a partner named George were in a landing craft up at the mouth of the Seal River, the outlet of the Bering Glacier about 60 miles up the coast, just after a storm. They were offloading fuel drums to the beach. There on the sand, just north of the river's mouth, was an animal he had never seen before.
It was dead, about 19 feet long, with clawed and flippered feet, a vertically flat tail half the length of its body, and a head like a “mean-ass bull mastiff dog,” with long conical teeth. There was no blow hole. The whole body was covered with coarse “bristly” fur. It wasn’t a sea lion or a whale. John had seen thousands of those.
Poking at it, they could feel the flesh under the skin was still frozen. John thinks it had been trapped in the glacier, broken out by the storm, washed down the river, and then pushed up onto the beach by the current.
It was too big for them to get it into the landing craft without help, and they needed to leave before they were stranded by the ebb tide. George took three pictures of the animal and extracted a tooth before tying the body to a log with a rope. They came back later, but the animal and the log had been washed out to sea.
I went back into town today to find John. We went into the bar for a beer. I had brought pictures of six marine mammals to show him, some reconstructed from fossils, some of living animals, and spread them out on the table.
He immediately pointed to the ambulocetus, an ancient whale ancestor that both swam in the ocean and walked on land, as having the right body and tail, but the legs of his animal were a little more flipperish, and the hips a little less distinct, and his animal had a much rounder head and a slightly more defined neck, something like the head and neck of the desmostylian in another picture. But he confirmed the vertical flatness of the tail, saying he thought the animal could “swim like a crocodile but also walk on land.” John’s description doesn’t fit any animal or fossil I can think of, frozen or living.
I haven’t ruled out that John was pulling my leg. But I don’t think so.
Did it come out of the glacier? If it did, it wouldn’t be ancient, not even prehistoric. Bering Glacier is Alaska’s largest and longest glacier, but geologically the ice isn’t that old. According to glaciologists, it takes less than 400 years for ice to flow the 140 miles from the top of the glacier to the bottom. Ambulocetus lived roughly 48 million years ago (and only in Pakistan, as far as we know) and desmostylia lived roughly 7.25 to 30.8 million years ago (probably on this coast; certainly in the Aleutians and over in Japan). Also, things tend to get pretty chewed up inside glaciers, but this body was intact.
John thinks that George sent the photos and maybe the tooth to the Smithsonian, but he is uncertain. He does remember George’s last name, and with a whiff of internet access here at the bar, I think I’ve located George online. I’ve reached out to him about those photos and the tooth. Maybe the Smithsonian kept records. I’ll look into that.
For now, all we have is an interesting story. But science starts with curiosity.
— William Urschel