From a distance, it looks like a herd of sheep grazing on the side of a hill. But get a little closer, and you’ll realize that those white dots are more ursine than ovine, as hundreds of polar bears descended on a whale carcass on the remote Wrangel Island.
The incredible scene was witnessed by a group of lucky tourists on an expedition through Arctic waters. They had stopped off at Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve, off the northern Siberian coast. The expedition spotted the beached carcass of a bowhead whale swarming with polar bears, as they jostled to get a mouthful of the rotting blubber and meat. Scientists have been alerted to the astonishing situation, and are now monitoring the gathering.
“We were cruising down the coast and saw a 'herd' or 'convention' of Polar Bears on/near the beach,” wrote expedition leader Rodney Russ, in a blog post. “There was a dead bowhead whale and we counted over 150 Polar Bears… that were either feeding or had been feeding on it in the immediate vicinity of the whale.”
A post by the federal government of Wrangel Island put the estimated number of bears higher still, suggesting that there were actually around 230. The government noted that there was a variety of ages and sexes present, with big males feeding alongside mothers and their young. At least two females had four cubs each.
Adult male bears and females with cubs aren't usually easy companions, as the former tend to have a habit of killing the little ones. But it is fairly well documented that when such a large food source suddenly becomes available, especially so late in the year, the bears will put their differences aside and share. What is unprecedented in this case is the sheer scale of the gathering.
It's believed that the bears seen on this single whale carcass account for an incredible 1 percent of the entire global polar bear population. While the animals are listed as “threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with the Arctic sea ice melting way earlier and ice shrinking in general, the bears' futures don't look great.
There's a very persistent myth that polar bear numbers are booming, but it's based on undocumented data from the 1960s. Even now, our best estimates for many populations of bears are simply our best guesses. Whether or not hunting bans helped bear numbers increase in some parts of the Arctic seems irrelevant when their habitat is literally disappearing here and now.