Call Of The WIDE! It’s Fat Bear Week 2020 over in Alaska

Paul Pinkerton
 
Bear 480 Otis is asleep in the middle of Brooks River at Katmai National Park and Preserve. Katmai's annual Fat Bear Week competition kicks off Wednesday. (N. Boak / National Park Service)
Bear 480 Otis is asleep in the middle of Brooks River at Katmai National Park and Preserve. Katmai's annual Fat Bear Week competition kicks off Wednesday. (N. Boak / National Park Service)

What in the name of Gentle Ben is Fat Bear Week? It’s a furry fight to the finish between brown bears that’s been part of life in Southern Alaska since 2014. The mission is simple… find the biggest bear at Brooks River! Company Explore run the annual competition, based at Katmai National Park & Preserve (KNPP).

 

“The wait is over but the weight is everything!” KNPP’s Twitter account excitedly announced on Wed 30th. Between then and Tues 6th, bear watchers are able to vote online for their favorite hairy heavyweights. 2 animals are pitched head to head daily, with the field whittled down to a lucky – if oblivious – winner.

The 2020 Fat Bear Week bracket, presented by Katmai National Park and Preserve, explore.org and Katmai Conservancy

The 2020 Fat Bear Week bracket, presented by Katmai National Park and Preserve, explore.org and Katmai Conservancy

Last year’s victor was Holly (aka Bear 435), “also known as the Queen of Corpulence” according to The Guardian. It’s not unlike a wildlife documentary version of WWE – at time of writing “Big Boss” has been bested in the belly department by “Big-Booty Bear”.

Meanwhile, “Single Sow” couldn’t go paw to paw with “Son” (812). “812’s win may be fleeting,” KNPP’s feed adds, “as he steps in the ring with the super-colossal 747 on Friday @ 12pm AKDT.” AKDT is Alaskan daylight time. Match ups are held between 8 am and 6 pm.

How come the bears are so fat? It’s all part of nature’s way. With cold weather sweeping in, the creatures prepare for their period of “torpor”. Often confused with hibernation, torpor sees them nod off rather than totally crash out.

And because a reported third of a bear’s weight is lost during this time, they need to bulk up between June and October before hitting that snooze button. It’s a state referred to as “hyperphagia” and is far more than just a case of the munchies. Hunger-inhibiting hormone Leptin is in retreat and the animals can stuff themselves silly, going medieval on a diet of fish, berries and grass.

The sockeye salmon of Brooks River form “a practical all-you-can-eat buffet for the more than 2,000 bears that are estimated to live in the park” writes Gizmodo. All you can eat is an understatement. The Department of the Interior notes “dozens” are wolfed down per bear daily, “with each salmon packing about 4,000 calories.”

Alaskan brown bears surely meet the criteria for chunkiest on the planet, thanks to these fatty fish. “Perhaps no other river on Earth offers bears the chance to feed on salmon for so long” writes the National Park Service (NPS). Pickings are the polar opposite of slim.

There’s so much on offer the furry friends can afford to consume the parts they need and ditch the rest. As media producer Naomi S. Boak comments to Live Science: “you see salmon fillets all over the banks of the river” as a result.

How do people make up their minds? Ardent bear fans have been monitoring the gluttonous goings-on for months via specially-installed cams. Before and after photos show the porky progress, though it isn’t all about looks. Competitors are also judged on their personalities and behavior toward fellow creatures.

For an up to the minute view of Fat Bear Week, NPS are on hand with Lidar – Light Detection and Ranging. Typically a laser-based measuring system used for mapping, it’s employed here to reflect off hairy hides, providing accurate stats for a hungry audience.

Stillness is a must. Unlike a mountain range or ancient archaeological site, the bears are constantly moving. But when they do bother to take a pause, the laser-wranglers are waiting with non-invasive equipment to capture ever detail.

Fat Bear Week 2020 seems packed with eager salmon-munchers. Less visitors due to Coronavirus probably means the animals have been freer than usual to roam. Live Science reports approx 80 bears by Brooks River, which is “more than they’ve seen there in at least a decade.”

The natural world is constantly shifting, so there are bound to be other factors at play. Anchorage Daily News writes, “it’s not clear whether a smaller number of bear-viewing visitors was the primary reason the bears acted differently this summer”.

Which is where the other purpose of Fat Bear Week comes in. On the one hand it’s a judge the fattest bear contest. On the other, it educates and informs about how their environment works. Facebook, Twitter and the like carry the message further and faster than ever before.

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Who will be crowned biggest and best of the bunch? In an event where “bear necessities” go out the window, it’s all to play for over in Alaska…

 
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