Update, October 9, 2019: After seven days of fierce competition, the voters have determined which of the chubby cubbies of Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve reigned supreme. And your 2019 winner is… 435 Holly. We say congratulations to all the bear-y good participants. Read all about #FatBearWeek2019 below:
Today marks the official start of Fat Bear Week, basically October Madness for Alaska’s salmon-chomping, chonky brown bears. Fans of the big-bellied omnivores can vote for the fattest of 12 fat bears in a single-elimination tournament on Facebook to determine which animal camped out on the banks of the Brooks River in Katmai National Park should be crowned jiggliest of them all.
The contest first began in 2014 to raise awareness of the bears and the critical part migrating salmon play in helping them pack on the pounds for winter. Over the years, Fat Bear Week has grown into a cult competition, with fans poring over live footage of the bears hosted at Explore.org to debate the merits of each chubby cubby.
As a press release explains, the bears station themselves near the Brooks River during the annual sockeye salmon run and gorge themselves on as much fish as they can catch. The bears, eating almost non-stop, will ingest about 90 pounds of fish, berries, small mammals and vegetation per day to prepare themselves for hibernation. They will lose over one-third of their body fat during that deep sleep, which lasts about six months. That means if they don’t add enough pounds to their pooches in the fall, they may not survive the winter, especially if it is long and harsh.
Despite the seriousness of the feasting, watching the bears grow enormously fat is fun. Hence the rise of Fat Bear week. Each day during the week, pairs of ursine plumpers will be pitted against each other, with the ones receiving the most votes moving on to the next round. The winners of Wednesday and Thursday will be pitted against previous year’s winners or particularly plump bears during round two on Friday. The 2019 champion will be crowned on Tuesday, October 8.
It’s anyone’s game. Last year’s winner, the popular 409 Beadnose, did not show up for this year’s competition. Mike Fitz, former Katmai Ranger and naturalist for Explore.org tells Mark Kaufman at Mashable that she hasn’t appeared on any bear cams this year. It’s possible the 20-year-old sow, who had four litters of cubs, passed away, or perhaps she found a different salmon run to gorge on. “When we last saw her, she appeared very fat and just as healthy as any other bear,” Fitz says, suggesting she was well positioned to survive hibernation. “Yet, she wasn’t seen at the river this summer and her absence remains unexplained.”
Another superchunk, 30-year-old sow Bear 410 pulled a similar vanishing trick several years ago, but returned in full, overstuffed form last year. She did not return to the river this year either.
So the crown is up for grabs. “Overall the bears who use Brooks River appear fat and healthy,” Fitz wrote in a July preview of the competition. A bumper crop of salmon provided more than enough noms for the bears this year. “I thought Fat Bear Week 2018 might be the fattest Fat Bear Week ever, but the “contestants” could beat that this year! Some already look ready to hibernate.”
In a separate article, Fat Bear fanatic Kaufman agrees that this year’s competition is particularly heated. Three-time winner and fan favorite Bear 480 Otis is back in the mix. Other top contenders include male bear 747, who is jumbo jet swole, and Bear 32 Chunk. The massive bears both are both using their girth to take over the river’s best fishing spots. Already, they likely exceed 1,000 pounds and may have even reached 1,200 pounds.
Meanwhile, two sow bears, 435 Holly and 128 Grazer, both had a summer free of raising cubs and were able to work on themselves, adding impressive poundage. And both may also be pregnant again, adding to their widening profiles. “Holly and Grazer are smaller overall compared to the big adult males, but they may be even proportionally fatter than Chunk and 747,” Fitz tells Kaufman.
Who will win? It’s hard to say—and it’s not always the fattest bear. Sometimes it’s the cutest bear, the one with the best personality on the livecams or the bear with the most devoted fanbase. One thing’s for sure, with plentiful salmon and full, swinging bellies, almost all the bears on the river this year can be declared winners.