For months, the brown bears at Alaska’s Katmai National Park have been bulking up on sockeye salmon before their annual hiberations. Now dozens are competing to be the fattest, and therefore healthiest, bear. Fans can watch the bears live on camera, browse photos online, and vote for who deserves the fat bear championship belt. Fat Bear Week runs October 5-11.
Michael Fitz created the week in 2014 when he was a park ranger at Katmai National Park, and now he’s a resident naturalist at Explore.org, and author of “The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River.”
“Fat Bear Week is a virtual tournament. We're putting real bears into a bracket where people get to vote on who they think is the fattest bear. But really it's a celebration of the success that the bears have had over the course of the summer,” Fitz explains. “Bears are hibernators, they will go into their dens fairly soon. And during that time, they don't eat or drink. So fat is the fuel that powers their wintertime survival. And Fat Bear Week is an opportunity for us to consider the different ways that bears get fat and why they get fat to survive.”
Last year, four-time champion Otis won. When he was a younger bear, he had an “old bear vibe,” says Fitz, who’s watched Otis for 15 years.
“He has never forgotten that patience and skill are the keys to his success. So he sits at the waterfall, he's maybe the most patient bear I’ve ever seen, and he waits for the salmon really to swim practically into his lap.”
Fitz says some bears feed with frenzied activity when they come to the waterfall, but Otis doesn’t do that, no matter his hunger level.
Meanwhile, 2019 champ Holly might be competing against her daughter this year. “It could be Holly versus a young sub-adult bear, number 335. And sub-adults are the teenagers of the bear world. So 335 is still trying to find her way on the landscape. And Holly got a bye this year in the Fat Bear Week bracket, but it could set up a match between mother and daughter.”
But Fitz is rooting for number 747. “I've been infamous for endorsing him during the last several years. … He's only won once.”
What should people look for when they cast votes?
“You can vote for simply who you think is the largest bear. But the largest bear frequently doesn't win … because we encourage people to consider the extenuating circumstances that each bear experiences … to get fat. So for big adult males … maybe it's the competition they face between adult males for the most preferred fishing spots. For a mother bear, maybe it's the energetic challenges that she experiences as she's trying to get fat for herself, but also make sure that she protects and nurtures her offspring. For a young bear, that's navigating the landscape, trying to figure out how to fish without mother's guidance and protection.”