Flock of sheep turns out to be extraordinary gathering of polar bears; photos

The sight of so many large, white critters spanning the Wrangel Island slope reminded tourists of grazing sheep.

But the remarkable scene featured polar bears in a gathering more than 200 strong, lured by the scent of a whale carcass that had drifted into the shallows.

Expedition members marvel at the sight of polar bears feasting on a dead whale. Photo: Courtesy of Rodney Russ/Heritage Expeditions

Witnessing this extraordinary congregation were tourists and researchers from the vessel Akademik Shokalskiy, as it cruised the shoreline of the Russian-controlled island in the Arctic Ocean.

During an era when polar bears around the world are imperiled by shrinking ice and diminished prey opportunities, it seemed an almost unbelievable occurrence. The bears appear to have gotten wind of the carcass at the same time, and followed their noses for miles to reach the bounty.

Polar bears enjoy a feast for the ages after a whale carcass washed into the Wrangel Islands shallows. Photo: Courtesy of A. Gruzdev/Wrangel Island Nature Reserve

They arrived on or before the morning of Sept. 19, and did not scatter until the carcass had been consumed, a day or two later.

Heritage Expeditions Capt. Rodney Russ, leader of the expedition, was first to write about the encounter, describing it as “one of those days I or anybody else with me will never forget.”

Russ wrote: “We were cruising down the coast and saw a ‘herd’ or ‘convention’ of polar bears on or near the beach. There was a dead bowhead whale and we counted over 150 polar bears (of all ages, sexes and sizes) that were either feeding or had been feeding on it in the immediate vicinity of the whale.

From a distance, the polar bears resembled sheep grazing on a hillside. Photo: Courtesy of A. Gruzdev/Wrangel Island Nature Reserve

“We launched the Zodiacs for a closer look and that is the memory we will all carry with us … there are no words to describe it. I share one photo in the hope that it will portray something of our experience.”

According to a report Friday in the Siberian Times, the total number of bears feasting on the whale numbered at least 230. The Times reported that several tourists commented on the bears’ resemblance, from a distance, to grazing sheep.

Images, however, reveal the extent of a peaceful assembly involving powerful carnivores that typically become aggressive toward one another while feeding or during the hunt.

Among the extraordinary polar bear gathering were cubs with their mothers. Photo: Courtesy of A. Gruzdev/Wrangel Island Nature Reserve

Wrangel Island, a 2,900-acre nature reserve between the Chukchi Sea and East Siberian Sea, boasts the highest density of polar bear dens on the earth, with as many as 400 mother bears utilizing the island each winter to raise their young.

In recent years, more polar bears have utilized Wrangel Island during the summer, because climate change has diminished the surrounding ice pack.

Wrangle Island has been referred to as the “Galapagos of the North,” and is believed to be the last destination on earth to have sustained woolly mammoths.

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