Vitus Jonassen Bering was born in 1681 at Horsens, Denmark. In 1703, he joined the Russian Navy as a sub-lieutenant, serving in naval campaigns in the Baltic, Black and White Seas and advancing to the rank of captain (second class) in 1720. In 1725, he was appointed to lead the Russian Exploring Expedition, 1725-1730, instructed by Tsar Petr I to determine whether the easternmost extremity of Asia was connected to North America or whether there was a sea route between the two continents. Travelling from St. Petersburg overland to the Kamchatka Peninsula, where the vessel Svyatoy Gavriil was built, Bering sailed into the strait which now bears his name, reaching latitude 67° 18 minutes north on 18 August 1728. Unable to sight the American coast due to poor weather conditions, Bering could not prove conclusively the existence of a strait between the two continents.
Subsequently commissioned to a further expedition, Bering led the Russian Great Northern Expedition, 1733-1743. This was a major exploratory venture organized by the Russian government to conduct a wide-ranging study of the extreme north-eastern region of Asia, in particular to determine conclusively the geographical relationship between Asia and America. The expedition was instructed to survey the entire Arctic coast of Russian Eurasia from Arkhangel'sk to Kamchatka, and to conduct geographical and scientific surveys over a large part of Siberia. Due to transport delays and the difficulties in organizing several hundred men, Bering did not depart from Okhotsk, the chief Pacific port of Siberia, until September 1740 when he set sail for Kamchatka, where the settlement of Petropavlovsk was established.
On 4 June 1741, the two expedition vessels, Sv. Petr commanded by Bering and Sv. Pavel commanded by Aleksey Chirikov, set out from Petropavlovsk on the main voyage of exploration, initially sailing southeast in search of the non-existent Gama Land, before turning northeast to look for America. Although both vessels were permanently separated in a storm, Chirikov reached the American coast on 17 July 1741 at Chichagof Island, southeast Alaska. Three days later, Bering reached the coast at Kayak Island, where the naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller briefly landed to collect botanical and zoological specimens before Bering ordered the return to Petropavlovsk. Encountering storms and weakened by scurvy on the return voyage, the surviving crew of Sv. Petr was finally shipwrecked on Ostrov Beringa, where Bering died on 8 December 1741.
The Bering Strait, the Bering Sea and the Bering Island are named for him.
From the guide to the Vitus Bearing collection, 1792, (Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge)