By virtue of their titanic size, the great whales – the baleen species plus the toothed sperm whale – turn into unparalleled flesh-buffets upon death. Obviously, those buffets are mostly sampled offshore, sometimes becoming floating bonanzas for sharks: great whites, tiger sharks, even great whites and tiger sharks together. Sunken whale cadavers also support whole abyssal food webs of scavengers and scavenger-hunters. (The temporary meat-and-bone habitats created by "whale fall", as the phenomenon is known, harbour hundreds of species, making them akin to hydrothermal vents in terms of deep-sea biodiversity hotspots.)

Sometimes, though, currents and tides conspire to wash dead whales ashore. (OK, stop reading this for a bit and watch Earth Touch's own Sarah Keartes document in up-close, blood-gushing, gas-bubbling detail what that looks – and, more crucially, smells – like!) When this happens – and if human beings don't decide to go all outside-the-box and blow the whale up – terrestrial scavengers can then happily get in on the action.

What else but a great whale could draw in more than 200 polar bears – the biggest carnivores on land – for one epic smorgasbord, as recently happened with a beached bowhead on Wrangel Island in the Russian Arctic? Brown bears and grey wolves in southern Alaska are happy campers, too, when rotting leviathans turn up on their beach-combing routes. And it's quite the sight to see an Alaskan brown bear, another of the heftiest terrestrial meat-eaters, chowing down on the biggest predator on the planet (discounting filter-feeders): a sperm whale.

With that smelly, blubbery preamble, here's a look at another sort of whale-scavenging soiree (just as remarkable as a couple hundred ice bears, really), documented recently along Western Australia's Kimberley coast.


 

John French, a pilot with KAS Helicopters, was cruising along the 80-kilometre Montgomery Reef when he spotted some heavyweight beach wrack from that inshore bank's famously dramatic tides: the hulk of a humpback whale, gone to meet its maker. He also saw something else: a single saltwater crocodile, beelining for the humpback.

The next day, the pilot flew back to the dead whale in the company of KAS Helicopters owner Adrian Crook and a group of tourists. By then, that one scavenging crocodile had turned into quite the congregation. 

"We flew down to take a look and we counted 14 crocodiles, including two that came out of the whale's belly," French explained to the ABC. Next to their unusual entrée, crocs in excess of three metres (9.8 feet) looked downright tiny in the photos the aerial onlookers captured.

And it's not hard to imagine how news of the beached whale might have spread. "[I]t stunk," French added. "It was like whale soup ... and the crocodiles were just in their element."

Tidal fluctuations on Montgomery Reef may exceed ten metres (33 feet), and when the surf finally manages to reclaim the humpback meat-mountain, it'll likely turn into a similarly popular meal offshore. "When the tide comes in the sharks will hit it really hard," French predicted.

Meanwhile, such mass scavenging gatherings would seem to provide a special opportunity for multiple adult crocs to interact. Because of the sheer quantity of food provided by a dead whale, intraspecies aggression among scavengers tends to be minimal: after all, there's plenty to go around. Observations of white sharks communally feeding on whale carcasses at sea bears that out, as a discernible pecking order seems to keep the mood amicable among the blubber-chomping fish. It's even been postulated that dead-whale feasts, by inviting big mature great whites together (and maybe cranking up their arousal levels), could help facilitate shark mating.

It may be rare for human beings to come across the sight, but coastal crocs periodically gorging on washed-up whale corpses has likely been going on a long time: at least 20 million years or so, the fossil record suggests. An old, if unpredictable, tradition, in other words.

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Top header image: Pixabay