It’s the internet’s favourite week of the year once again; voting is officially open in Katmai National Park’s 2023 fat bear competition.
Each year in October, online dwellers get to gather around live streams beamed across the net from Alaska, where a host of brown bears are packing on as much weight as possible ahead of their upcoming hibernation.
12 bears have been selected for this year’s tournament-style knockout and will now vie for the approval of the internet. Thousands of viewers tune into the live streams from the Books River to watch the bears chase their scaly meals in competition for the title of Katmai’s fattest bear.
“We have some of the largest bears on the planet,” Katmai ranger Naomi Boak has said. “The big boars, the biggest guys, can get to be between 1,000 and 1,400 pounds.”
Of course, the bears don’t know they’re reality stars. Each of the 12 bears, out of the 2,200 or so that are estimated to live in the park, are just doing what bears normally do and fattening themselves up as they enter ‘hyperphagia’ or pre-hibernation mode.
“Essentially those fat stores have to keep them healthy from late October till June,” Boak said.
Each bear is given a number and, if they’ve been around long enough to become familiar to the rangers and the public, earn a name as well. The 2023 bracket sees the return of 32 Chunk, 128 Grazer, 435 Holly, and the reigning champion, 747. Fan favourite 480 Otis is also back this year after a late draw in the bracket.
From today, voters online can now decide which bear they want to progress to the next round, which, despite the name of the competition, is not necessarily the fattest. The bears, being gigantic and potentially lethal wild animals, can’t be weighed so it’s up to viewers to size them up by eye. Some of the bears in this year’s brackets are returning favourites and, in Fat Bear mythology, there are rivalries, sob stories, and familial legacies to contend with.
Mike Fitz, a former ranger at Katmai National Park and the founder of Fat Bear Week, told the ABC that he considers the overall shape of the bear but also their personal stories when he votes.
“901, who was the runner-up in Fat Bear Week last year, she came back this year with three cubs. So all that body fat in winter was put to good use, giving birth and then nursing her cubs in the den,” Fitz said.
“She needs to go into the den healthy and her cubs also, she’s feeding them, so they need to go into the den healthy so the family can survive winter hibernation”.
The ranger said that his money this year would be on 32 Chunk to take the title, but that both he and 747 are “huge bears,” likely weighing more than 500kgs.
Beginning in 2014, last year’s Fat Bear Week saw over 1 million votes cast throughout the tournament and roughly 10 million people tuning in on the live stream. While it’s certainly earned its place as one of the internet’s favourite things, Katmai National Park has said that the competition shines an important light on conservation.
“ The Brooks River is part of the Bristol Bay watershed, one of the last great salmon runs left on earth,” they note in a press statement.
“ Without the pristine Brooks River ecosystem to support an abundant salmon run, there would be no Fat Bear champions.”
Far Bear Week 2023 will run from 4-10 October, with this year’s champion being crowned on 11 October AEST.