Heft, fluff and salmon: Katmai’s Fat Bear Week finals are upon us

Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park and Preserve (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Voters from around the world will soon decide the winner of Katmai National Park’s Fat Bear Week. Voting ends Tuesday at 5 p.m.

The annual competition pits brown bear vs. brown bear after a summer of catching salmon and packing on pounds for hibernation.

Park staff don’t measure bears with a scale though. Park spokeswoman Cynthia Hernandez said 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 said, 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.

The finalists in this year’s competition are 128 Grazer and 32 Chunk.

Grazer is recognized by her blond ears and a round belly that hangs in the water when she fishes. She’s also known for confronting much larger bears to protect her cubs.

Chunk ranked among the river’s largest and most dominant male bears this year. He has a distinctive muzzle scar and hefty hind quarters. He tends to shed much of the fur around his shoulders and neck in early summer, giving him a two-toned appearance.

Hernandez said past winners have also been popular in this year’s competition.

Bear 435, Holly, won in 2019. She adopted and raised a cub alongside her own in 2007.

“She is looking splendid this year as well,” Hernandez said. “We love to see her come back every year.”

Holly lost to Grazer on Monday.

a bear
Bear 435, Holly. (Katmai National Park and Preserve)

Of course, the old man of the falls and four-time champion, Bear 480, Otis, has returned, too.

The 27-year-old bear lost to Bear 901 on Friday. Bear 901, with her blond, triangular ears, is about 20 years his junior.

a bear
Bear 480, Otis. (Katmai National Park and Preserve)

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 6-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 said 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 said 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.

Get in touch with the author at christina@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with this year’s finalists.

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