It is that time of year when the bears pack on the pounds and the fat bear fans are here for it. Fat Bear Week! This week-long celebration is sponsored and organized by Explore.org—the folks who provide the means for us to watch bears on live webcams at Brooks Falls all summer long.
Brooks Falls lies within Katmai National Park. It’s one of the more remote national parks and requires a plane or boat to visit. Even if you think you don’t know it, you do—conjure those iconic images of bears catching salmon as they jump a waterfall and you’ve got it. It takes a lot of planning and more than a little money to get there in person. When Explore.org began live streaming the falls several years ago, it gave us bear-crazy people our fix…kind of. I’ve been lucky enough to get to Katmai National Park for a bear viewing tour but have not made it to Brooks Falls—yet.
The pictures in this post are from our Katmai National Park trip to Geographic Harbor in August. The bears show up at Brooks River in full force during the July salmon run. They take a break in August to fish elsewhere and return to Brooks River at the end of September to gorge themselves on the easy picking of dying salmon after they spawn.
Why Is Fat Fabulous?
The coastal brown bears in Katmai are the same species as the smaller grizzly bears in the interior of Alaska. The difference between the two is their diet. Grizzly bears have a mostly vegetarian diet of roots and berries. Brown bears feast on the salmon that are abundant along the coast. The Brooks River has one of the highest concentrations of sockeye salmon in the world. Each year, salmon return to spawn, and with the salmon, come the bears. As summer draws to a close, they pack on the pounds to prepare for hibernation. Some bears can eat up to 30 salmon per day. During the long winter months of hibernation, they lose about a third of their body weight so getting as fat as possible is a means of survival.
How Does Fat Bear Week Work?
Twelve bears are chosen that exemplify the portliness you would expect from gorging themselves in preparation for hibernation. Much like Selection Sunday in March, once the bracket is revealed fans begin making their predictions. Voting takes place on Explore.org with all the fanfare you might expect. Throughout the week, there are live chats with experts and there are even educational resources for teachers to incorporate fat bear week into the classroom.
At the end of the week, the king or queen of chunky is crowned.
Bonus Chubby Babies
Last year a new layer of cuteness was added to the competition—Fat Bear Jr. This preliminary competition pits four roly-poly cubs against one another. The winner will take a spot in the main event. The voting for Fat Bear, Jr. began on September 29, 2022. The winner, 909’s yearling will be one of this year’s twelve fat bear candidates.
Who Are The Bears?
Fans of Fat Bear Week know and love many of the bears that are familiar to the falls. Many of these bears were taught to fish here by their mothers and then return year after year. Once identified, the bears are given an ID number but many of the bears also have a nickname. We don’t know who will be in the running this year, but here are a few of the favorites.
#480 Otis is perhaps the oldest bear who returns year after year to Brooks Falls. He was first identified in 2001 as a subadult and is now over 25 years old. Otis has been crowned fat bear champion a record four times. He was the winner of the first contest in 2014 and won again in 2016, 2017, and 2021.
For the last couple of years, Otis has shown up late to the Brooks River and has been very skinny in the early summer. His age is showing in that he is missing two canine teeth and he tends to avoid conflict with other bears for his favorite fishing spots. However, he continues to be a favorite and is expected to be a fat bear contender in 2022.
#435 Holly was the winner in 2019. She too has been a fixture year after year at Brooks Camp. She was first identified in 2001.
As a female bear, I have to argue she has it a lot tougher than her male competition. Not only does she have to look after herself, but she has also raised several cubs over the years. In 2014 she adopted and raised a yearling cub that had been abandoned by its mother.
#747—no nickname required—is one of the largest bears seen in Brooks Camp. He was first identified in 2004 and was the fat bear winner in 2020. He has become one of the more dominant bears at the falls and because of his physique, he is definitely in the running for Fat Bear 2022.
#128 Grazer was first identified in 2009. She has never been a fat bear winner but is a favorite of bear cam viewers because of the fierce protection of her cubs. She’s raised two litters, the most recent are twins affectionately known as the Grazerettes (who were Fat Bear Jr. contenders this year but beaten out by #909’s yearling). Typically female bears keep their cubs away from the most coveted fishing spots due to the proximity of other bears and the competition that arises. Grazer has taught her cubs well and they have been successfully catching their own fish at the top of the falls. They will be on their own after this year and I expect to see them return to the falls next year.
#32 Chunk is another dominant male at Brooks River. He was first identified in 2007. Last year, he returned to Brooks River with a large scar across his muzzle, likely from a fight with another male.
There are many others and you can read more in the Bears of Brooks River ebook.
The candidates will be announced on October 3, 2022 and the voting begins on October 5, 2022. Join the fun and find more information on the official Fat Bear Week page.