Danish explorer (in Russian service). Born in Horsens, Denmark, in 1681. Died on Bering Island, in 1741.
As a very young man, Vitus Bering took up a seaman's life. In 1704, he was commissioned an officer in the Russian Navy.1 He saw service in both the Baltic Fleet and the Fleet of Azow, and near the end of 1724, Czar Peter I "the Great" appointed him leader of the First Kamchatka Expedition (1725-1730).
It is traditionally believed that the purpose of this expedition was to answer the scientific question of whether Asia and the Americas were connected by a landbridge, but some discussion has arisen among historians as to the accuracy of this assumption.2
In August 1728, Bering sailed through the strait that was later to be named for him, but he never actually managed to catch sight of land on the American side of the strait.
Returning to Russia, Bering was charged with heading the Second Kamchatka Expedition, which set off in 1733. This expedition was to chart the Siberian coastline and explore trade routes to Japan. By July 1741, Bering had reached the coast of Alaska, but due to low supplies and problems with scurvy, among the crew, he was forced to turn back. Bering's flagship, the Saint Peter, never made it back. After a bout with stormy weather, Bering and his crew landed on an unknown and uninhabited island, where Bering himself died of the disease that also killed 30 of his 75 crewmen.
In 1991, his grave on the island (now named for him) was found by a team of Danish archaeologists, as part of a Soviet expedition to the island.
Today, the following geographical sites are named for Vitus Bering:
- The Bering Strait, the strait between Asia and North America. At its narrowest point (169° North), the strait is only 86 km wide. Although Bering sailed through the strait, it was not properly discovered by him, having been previously discovered by the Russian seaman Semen Dezhnev, in 1648.
- The Bering Sea, located south of the Bering Strait. An open expanse of sea totalling 2.3 million square kilometers. The average depth is 1600 m and the deepest spot is 4191 m.
- Bering Island, the largest (c. 1700 sq. km) of the Russian Commander Islands (Komandorskiye Ostrova), located in the Bering Sea, approximately 220 km east of Kamchatka. Today, the island has a few thousand inhabitants - but when Bering landed on it, in 1741, it was desolate.
1 It was relatively common at the time to serve in foreign militaries, both on land and at sea.
2 In 1941, A.A. Pokrovsky pointed out that Bering's primary mission was to visit the Americas and chart European colonisation there, and to make contact with European trading vessels, presumably to open the door for Russian trade and colonisation in those regions. Later, other historians have assessed the purpose of the expedition to be primarily political.