Heft, fluff and salmon: Katmai's Fat Bear Week finals are upon us
Voters from around the world will decide the winner of Katmai National Park’s Fat Bear Week. Returners and newcomers alike spent the summer catching salmon and packing on pounds before hibernation.
Park staff don’t measure bears with a scale though. Cynthia Hernandez, a member of the park’s communications team, says that like beauty, fatness is in the eye of the beholder.
“We rely on visitors and viewers of the bears to decide who is the fluffiest, who has put on the most weight since July,” Hernandez said. “You can compare who looks to be the heaviest right now, who looks to be the most round, or who you think is the cutest.”
Fatness, Hernandez says, is a measure of survival success before bears hibernate, when they sometimes lose up to one-third of their body weight. Female bears, too, are more likely to have cubs if they gain enough weight during the summer.
This year’s contenders included newcomer Bear 806, a year-old cub who won the ‘Fat Bear JR’ contest earlier this month. 806 went against Bear 32, Chunk, who has a distinctive muzzle scar and hefty hind quarters. Chunk won, and is in the finals now.
Bear 128, Grazer, Hernadez says, is another fan favorite. She’s recognized by a round belly that hangs in the water when she fishes. Bear 128 is known for confronting much larger bears to protect her cubs.
Hernandez says past winners are also popular. Bear 435, Holly, won in 2019. She adopted and raised a cub alongside her own in 2007, and is back in the running.
“She is looking splendid this year as well. She's a large adult female and her ears are blonde and we love to see her come back every year,” she said.
Of course, the old man of the falls and four-time champion, Bear 480, Otis, has returned. The 27-year-old bear lost to Bear 901 on Friday.
Bear 901, with her blond, triangular ears, is about twenty years his junior.
The famous Brooks Falls is a prime fishing ground for hundreds of bears. According to Hernandez, bears prefer different spots of the salmon-rich area, sometimes depending on age and skill.
“Due to the geology of the space, the short six-foot fall, there are several opportune spaces for the bears to fish. So there's a location called ‘the Office’ which is on the lower section of the falls where some of the salmon congregate. It's shallower there,” she said.
Hernandez says older bears, like Otis, tend to fish in the Office. Younger bears, on the other hand, are a little more active.
“Some of the younger bears who may not know the most efficient fishing methods will hang out a little further downstream and run and try to catch the fish as they're swimming,” she said.
Fat Bear Week graces the social media feeds of hundreds of thousands of fans with images and videos of the park’s fluffy carnivores. But Hernandez says the week also celebrates Katmai's robust ecosystem.
“There's so much to celebrate this week. Not just the fat, amazing, cute bears but also the health of the park and the ecosystem and Bristol Bay - the waters that feed into the Katmai ecosystem and in the Brooks River. It is one of the largest and healthiest salmon runs left on the planet,” she said.
Fans can vote for the 2023 winner at fatbearweek.org.
Images of Bear 128, Bear 435 and Bear 480 were taken with permission from: https://www.nps.gov/katm/learn/fat-bear-week-2023.htm
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