We’ve Got Something Huge: Fat Bear Week!

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We’ve Got Something Huge: Fat Bear Week!

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Last week was Fat Bear Week 2021. We kid you not! This annual competition crowns the fattest bear of Brooks River and celebrates the big bruins of Katmai National Park and Preserve as they fatten up ahead of winter.

A late salmon run hasn’t deterred these beefy behemoths who have come out in record numbers to Brooks River seeking the salmon that help them pack on the pounds. They are some of the biggest bears on earth.

Brown bears descend on Brooks River to pack on the pounds needed to survive their winter hibernation. Via Katmai National Park and Preserve

Could some other blubbery bear grab the attention with their weight and steal the votes from past favorites?

While Katmai National Park’s bears of Brooks River continue their healthy pre-winter ritual of hyperphagia-induced gorging, it is the audience and viewers who cast the votes. Stout sows and bulky boars competed in head-to-head matchups as they have in years past, with the addition of two days for chunky cubbies to compete for a spot in the Fat Bear Week (FBW) bracket.

Can 747, last year’s champion, stay atop the hierarchy of rotund royalty?

Will 435 “Holly” or 480 “Otis” reclaim the championship?

Is this the year 32 “Chunk,” 151 “Walker” or 128 “Grazer” can claim a maiden victory?

“Working on the webcam—and even prior to that, just being a ranger at Katmai and talking to people when they were watching the bears—I knew that bears were very charismatic creatures,” Mike Fitz, resident naturalist for Explore.org and the founder of Fat Bear Week says.

“I knew that people are very curious about [the bears’] lives and how they make a living, and the point of Fat Bear Week is to make some of those stories more accessible to people and do it in a fun way.”

The official bracket of Fat Bear Week 2021

What originally began in 2014 as a one-day event — Fat Bear Tuesday — has since grown into a much-anticipated international event. About 55,000 voters participated in Fat Bear Week 2018. In 2019, that number grew to 250,000, and in 2020 it ballooned to 650,000.

The obsession over the brown bears’ bulk is the basis of Fat Bear Week but it’s the viewers who, ahem, weigh-in, so to speak.

Last week’s 2021’s event—which took place from September 29 through October 5, 2021—promised to be even chunkier thanks to one gigantic bruin ready to defend his Fat Bear title.

“It’s celebrating something we normally don’t get to celebrate, which is fatness, and fatness as something good and positive because the bears survive on their fat,” Katmai National Park’s media ranger Naomi Boak says.

Though Fat Bear Week is a digital campaign, much of the work required to put it together takes place in the field. To get her pictures, Boak spends weeks skulking around areas where the bears are known to frequent, such as Brooks Falls. A good photograph can boost a contestant’s chances of winning, and snapping the perfect shot is often easier said than done. The best time to take a bear’s “after” picture is in September when they’re close to achieving their hibernation bod, but this is also when they spend most of their time in the water gorging on salmon. This makes it hard to capture their full silhouette in all its glory on camera—though it’s not impossible.

Each winter, curled snug in their dens, brown bears endure a months-long famine. During hibernation, bears will not eat or drink and can lose one-third of their body weight. Their winter survival depends on accumulating ample fat reserves before entering the den. Katmai’s brown bears are at their fattest in late summer and early fall after a summer spent trying to satisfy their profound hunger.

Bears gorge on the richest, most easily obtainable foods they can find. In Katmai National Park, that most often means salmon. Dozens of bears gather at Brooks River to feast on salmon from late June until mid-October. Perhaps no other river on Earth offers bears the chance to feed on salmon for so long. 

Each bear faces its own challenges in order to gain the body mass necessary to survive. Adult males need to grow large to dominate the best fishing spots and secure mating opportunities. Female bears need to gain weight for their own survival as well as to support the birth and growth of cubs. Bear cubs experience the same hunger as older bears but also undergo tremendous growth spurts. Juvenile bears living on their own for the first time must navigate a gauntlet of hazards to establish a home range and find food without their mother’s guidance.  

Fat bears exemplify the richness of Katmai National Park and Bristol Bay, Alaska, a wild region that is home to more brown bears than people and the largest, healthiest runs of sockeye salmon left on the planet.

This year, nearly 800,000 votes were cast.

And the Bodaciously Bulky Winner Is:

Fat boy Otis

480 Otis took his fourth Fat Bear title by vanquishing 151 Walker, a younger bear who has impressive size but couldn’t beat the comeback story of 480 Otis. The older bear, believed to be around 25, emerged from hibernation a bit late this year, looking very thin and facing health problems.

On Fat Bear Tuesday, the final round of the weeklong contest, the plump pro defeated 151 Walker by over 6,000 votes.

“The portly patriarch of paunch persevered to pulverize the Baron of Beardonkadonk in the final match,” the park announced on Twitter, adding that the champ was “still chowing down”.

Other Competitors Include:

128 Grazer

Grazer is a large adult female with a long straight muzzle and conspicuously large blond ears. During late summer and fall, she has grizzled, light brown fur and is often one of the fattest bears to utilize Brooks River. In 2021, she returned to the river with two yearling cubs.

435 Holly

In early summer, Holly is a medium-large adult female with blond ears, blond fur, and pale, tan-colored claws. By early autumn, she is usually very fat with grizzled blond fur. Her appearance at that time somewhat resembles the shape and color of a toasted marshmallow.

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