Fat Bear Week marks the ultimate battle of the burly, as brown bears flock to the Brooks River in Katmai to feast on the area’s abundant sockeye salmon run.
The bears’ main goal is to fatten up as much as possible before a long winter hibernation, with the biggest of the bears tossing back a whopping 160,000 calories per day in fresh fish.
In the late weeks of summer and early autumn, the male bears can gain up to 230 kilograms (just over 500 pounds), effectively doubling their size by the time hibernation starts in late October or early November.
For those new to Fat Bear Week, this gluttonous feast is celebrated online as people worldwide tune in to live cams positioned around the park and cheer on their favourite bears. Fans are invited to cast their votes, bracket-style, over the course of six days (Oct. 4 to Oct. 10 this year), with the year’s winner crowned next week on what’s been dubbed Fat Bear Tuesday.
That said, there was some concern this year as to whether Fat Bear Week would even happen. The program was among many others that were threatened over concerns of a U.S. government shutdown. However, a last-minute deal was struck this week to keep federal government services running until at least mid-November, and that stopgap funding now means Fat Bear Week can proceed.
Voting is now open, Katmai has announced, and Facebook fan pages are already lighting up with memes, highlights and healthy debate about which chonky bear will reign supreme in 2023.
Let’s meet the bears vying for this year’s title, shall we?
Chunk is large adult male with narrowly set eyes, a prominent brow ridge and a distinctive scar across his muzzle. Even at his leanest, Chunk carries substantial fat reserves, especially around the bum and thighs (sound familiar?).
While a bit more timid in previous years, in 2023 he ranked among the river’s largest and most dominant males, often edging out fan favourites like the dominant Bear 747.
Grazer is a large adult female with a long, straight muzzle and blond ears, and is considered one of the Brooks River’s best anglers. During late summer and fall, Grazer has grizzled, light brown fur and is often one of the fattest bears of Brooks River.
She’s a mama to two litters of bear cubs and is known to preemptively confront and attack much larger bears, and many steer clear of her because of this.
A large adult male with distinctive dark rings around the eyes, Walker uses his size and disposition to suss out less-frequently used parts of the Brooks River.
This year, Walker has faced frequent challenges from other bears, but he’s not quick to back down and maintains his dominance by displacing other bears from his preferred fishing spots.
164 Bucky Dent
A medium-sized adult male, Bucky Dent lives up to his name with a prominent face indentation on his muzzle. He’s unlikely to compete for fishing spots and created his own at the very base of Brooks Falls at the edge of the deepest plunge pool, a place other bears seldom use.
Electra’s a medium-sized adult with perky ears, a long neck and prominent shoulder hump. She established her presence quickly at Brooks River after she separated from her mother in 2011 and has two known litters of cubs, whom she fiercely protects.
She’s part of a long family line of bears who have been known to return to the Brooks River year after year.
A large adult female, 402 has medium brown fur and crescent or apostrophe-shaped ears when viewed from front or back. She’s a true matriarch on the river, giving birth to at least eight litters over the years.
She’s known both for her skills as an angler, as well as being an efficient scavenger of dead and dying salmon further down the Brooks River.
428 is a pudgy, 3.5-year-old subadult bear, with blond ears and grizzled, light brown fur. This marks her first year as an independent adult, navigating the river without her mama’s guidance for the first time.
Holly is a large adult female with blond ears and pale, tan-coloured claws. By early autumn, she resembles a lightly toasted marshmallow with grizzled blond fur. Her life has not been easy, but she’s a remarkable mom, having raised one injured cub and even adopting another.
Holly hopes to reclaim her title this year – she was the Fat Bear Week champion in 2019.
Otis is another fan favourite, a medium-large adult male with a blocky muzzle and a floppy right ear. Otis was four to six years old when he was first identified in 2001, and he’s now one of the older male bears at Brooks River.
When he arrived at the Brooks River earlier this summer, he was looking very skinny, but through his signature style of patience and persistence in the river, he’s fattening up nicely.
Otis has won more Fat Bear titles than anyone. He was the inaugural Fat Bear Tuesday champion in 2014 and Fat Bear Week champion in 2016, 2017, and 2021.
747 — a.k.a. Bear Force One — is hoping to hold onto his 2022 title of Fat Bear Week winner. He’s a large adult male with a blocky muzzle and floppy ears and has become a giant among bears. At one point he was estimated to weigh 635 kilograms (1,400 pounds).
This year he’s faced more consistent challenges from other large bears like 856 and 32 Chunk, deferring to both rivals — something that was not seen in previous years.
901 is a medium-sized adult female with blond-rimmed, triangular ears. 901’s fur is golden brown in early summer and grizzled-brown in late summer.
Last year, people speculated that she might be pregnant due to her abundant body fat, and their suspicions were confirmed when she returned to the Brooks River this year with three cubs in tow. Tragically, one of those cubs disappeared in mid-September while mama fished.
Rounding out the contenders is 806 Jr., a male first-year cub with long, shaggy brown fur and a short, pointed muzzle. 806 Jr. technically makes up one of the cubs of Fat Bear Junior, but due to his rapid growth over the summer, he’s been called up to the big bear bracket and is one of the contenders in the first round of voting.
This feisty club fishes with mom (806) and on several occasions this year was swept downstream or over the waterfall. When he was attacked by other bears, his mom came to his rescue and managed to keep him safe.