Fall has finally come for the Northern Hemisphere, which can only mean one thing (no, not frogs and cranberries). Fat Bear Week has returned, bringing a joyous parade of chunky floofs for your viewing pleasure. The annual event is hosted by the Katmai National Park and Preserve (KNPP) in Alaska, celebrating the natural and enthusiastic weight gain of its resident bears as they bulk up in the summer months to get winter torpor-body ready.
2020 is shaping up to be an exciting year for the bodacious bears as it was announced back in August that the annual fattening had kicked off with aplomb. Fisheries experts are predicting that we could see some of the greatest weights to date as a record-breaking sockeye salmon run brought the greatest number of fish to the park since records began in 1963. Each year these fish make the ambitious migration up the Naknek River to Katmai's Brooks River, where hungry bears await. The previous record saw 3.5 million salmon head up the river in 1991, but by July of this year, there had already been 3.4 million sockeye salmon en route to the feast.
"2020 has been a good year for the bears," said Amber Kraft, Interpretation and Education Program Manager for KNPP, in an email to IFLScience. "This year’s sockeye salmon run in the Naknek arm and the Brooks River were record-breaking. The Naknek had 4 million salmon flow through it and Brooks River had 800,000 sockeye salmon. The Brooks River has had very large and healthy sockeye runs for the past 4 years. The silver salmon run, which begins later in the season was smaller than in recent years, but it is still trickling in and some bears are catching them at the falls."
The quiet of lockdown may have been advantageous to the bears this year, too.
"The bears seemed to own the river this year in a way not seen in recent years," Kraft said. "There were more salmon down there in July and fewer anglers and photographers (due to COVID-19). So not only could they spend more time fishing the lower river, but they could rest there as well. There were also many more bears roaming around Brooks Camp this summer. There are possibly three reasons for this: Fewer people living in camp because the campground was closed and the Lodge only opened at half capacity in August; there were fewer planes landing on the beach; and the salmon was plentiful so curious bears could nose around more."
The unseasonably successful salmon run means the bears were ahead of schedule in getting chunky for winter, sparking predictions that this year’s victor will smash the 2019 winner, Holly, who was described by KNPP as “the Queen of Corpulence". Her success in bulking up was reflected by the arrival of a cub in the spring, as female bears won't get pregnant if they have insufficient fat stores. However, it's possible with the exertion of motherhood Holly could have her title snatched up by one of the many rotund contenders who are hot on her tail.
"Bear 747, a giant of a bear worthy of his namesake, is again a top contender," said Kraft. "And two-time Fat Bear Week Champion, 480 Otis has not lost his touch and is extremely fat... Another bear with a huge reputation and a huge belly is 128 Grazer. She is enormous, despite nursing and caring for two spring cubs."
Most excitingly of all you needn’t be a mere spectator of the spectacle, as from September 30 to October 6, your vote decides who is the fattest bear. Matchups will be open for voting from 12pm to 10pm ET (9am to 7pm PT) and the competition unfolds as a single-elimination tournament. Each time a pair of bears are pitted against each other, simply vote for the one you think is the fattest and the bear with the most votes lives to outweigh in a later round. At the end of all the rounds of voting, our tubby victor will be crowned champion of Fat Bear Week 2020. You can vote and check out this year’s talent here.
"There is no “fat-shaming” going on with these animals," said Kraft. "Fat bears mean they are healthy bears and ready for the winter. During hibernation, bears live off their accumulated fat. Instead, we are celebrating a feat of nature we are lucky to be able to witness."