Russia: Over 200 Polar Bears Filmed Feasting on Whale Carcass in Bowhead Banquet

Polar bears enjoy a free buffet of bowhead whale meat. A.Gruzdev, Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve.

Last week, tourists and scientists aboard a Russian tourism ship were thrilled to see a dead whale—because where there are dead animals, there are also likely to be live animals. But the site they stumbled upon greatly exceeded any wildlife-watching tourist's expectations.

From a distance, the dark grey hillside that the tour boat approached looked like it was covered in white, roaming sheep. The distant animals had been drawn to the spot by the remains of an enormous bowhead whale. But they weren't sheep—they were polar bears. Hundreds of them.

From a distance, the swarm of polar bears looks like white dots or sheep. A.Gruzdev, Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve.

The sight was incredibly unusual. Polar bears are typically solitary animals, traveling either by themselves or as a mother-cub unit. They don't hunt in packs. But just like many tourists, they also apparently enjoy a free buffet.

Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve is a natural UNESCO World Heritage Site above the arctic circle, 87 miles from the closest part of mainland Russia. Wrangel Island was the last place on earth where woolly mammoths lived, only 4,300 years ago, long after other mammoths on Earth had died. Currently, Wrangel Island has the world's largest population of Pacific walruses and the highest density of ancestral polar bear dens, according to UNESCO.

The Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve posted pictures and a description of the sighting on its website. Reserve officials estimated that more than 230 bears were there, of all ages and walks of life. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, about 26,000 currently roam the planet, which means that one out of 113 polar bears in the world could have been at this banquet.

Tourists were on board a ship called Akademik Shokalskiy via the cruise company Heritage Expeditions. Tour boats can only dock in August and September when there is no sea ice.

Polar bears walk along the bank of Wrangel Island. A.Gruzdev, Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve.

Dead whales are a cornucopia of bizarre science. Scientists can collect their bodies, study them, and put their skeletons together. The bodies can bloat and explode. In 2015, Alaskan authorities investigated a mass die-off of whales on their coast (and shared this photo of grizzly bears eating one.)