How the Bears at Alaska’s Katmai National Park Became Celebrities

Bear enthusiasts across the globe huddled around their web browsers early this summer as the folks at live nature network Explore.org turned on their wildly popular bear cams at Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve. The salmon run was beginning at Brooks River, and skinny bears emerging from hibernation were ready for another season of feasting. By autumn each year, the bears gain a massive amount of weight to prepare for their next overwintering, and after a lively round of online voting by their devoted internet fans one will be crowned “Fat Bear Week” champion.

The bear cam viewers celebrated as they recognized familiar floofy faces returning to Brooks Falls, a popular bear fishing spot because of the temporary barrier it provides for migrating salmon. But online chats were filled with nervous anticipation about 480 Otis, the reigning 2021 Fat Bear Week champion. The beloved bear hadn’t yet made his return. First documented at the falls in 2001, Otis is believed to be between 25 and 27 years old—an elder for a brown bear, a species whose life expectancy is about 20 years, though many live longer, according to the park service. Was last season the final time Otis would return to his favorite fishing spot, which fans lovingly call his “office?”

When the geriatric favorite finally made his season debut in late June, the excitement on Twitter seemed more akin to a sighting of Justin Bieber than a brown bear: “OTIS HAS ARRIVED,” Explore.org tweeted. “This is not a drill! You may now cry happy tears.” Relief and joy filled the thread replies: “I can’t believe I doubted him. Nothing but respect for the king,” one tweep wrote. “Welcome home, love of my life!!!” replied another. Another said simply: “The bear. The legend.”

bears gather at Brooks Falls
Bears gather at Brooks Falls in large numbers. L. Law/Katmai National Park and Preserve

The brown bears of Katmai National Park have most certainly been elevated to celebrity status, thanks to the runaway success of Fat Bear Week and the Explore.org bear cams, which mark their tenth anniversary this year. The online bear battle, launching today following the release of the fat bear bracket on Monday, has been the subject of national and international media attention, and it’s inspired a line of popular merchandise including calendars, T-shirts and mugs. The increased visibility has also translated into fundraising success for the park’s advocacy group, the Katmai Conservancy, which partners with the multimedia organization Explore.org and Katmai National Park to organize the competition.

What makes the Katmai bear cams unique is that fans across the globe have watched the same bears return to the falls year after year, says Charles Annenberg Weingarten, the founder of Explore.org and the vice president of the philanthropic group the Annenberg Foundation. Unlike other nature camera subjects where viewers might not be familiar with any one individual animal, at Katmai, viewers can learn each bear’s story over the course of multiple seasons and observe their personality quirks, he says. Like pets, Annenberg Weingarten says, “we have fallen in love with them.”

“Every year the fans return to Katmai virtually, and it’s like they’re seeing these long lost relatives return, and it fills their hearts with joy,” Annenberg Weingarten says.

According to Katmai superintendent Mark Sturm, the partnership with Explore.org has greatly increased awareness for the remote park, located on the southern Alaska peninsula about 290 miles southwest of Anchorage by air. The park’s headquarters in King Salmon, along with Brooks Falls and its nearby bear-watching hub, Brooks Camp, are all so remote they are only accessible by boat or plane.

“It’s a remarkable thing—we are tucked away in a corner of Alaska, and the fact of the matter is a lot of folks are able to enjoy a special place like the Brooks area of the park entirely due to our ability to project imagery over the span of an entire season,” says Sturm.

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While nearly 15,400 adventurous travelers made the trek to Brooks Camp last year, a much larger number visit virtually, according to Katmai National Park interpretation and education program manager Amber Kraft. The bear cams garnered 10.9 million viewers in 2021, Kraft says, a number that’s ballooned from 3.3 million viewers their first year of operation in 2012. Fat Bear Week has been a huge part of that success, although organizers say its popularity was completely unexpected. It began in 2014 as a one-day promotion on Katmai’s Facebook page known as “Fat Bear Tuesday,” according to Mike Fitz, a former Katmai ranger who is now the resident naturalist for Explore.org.

Fitz, who was working as a visual information specialist for the park, says he noticed while scrolling through the webcam’s comments that someone had posted side-by-side photos of the same bear—one image showing the bear skinny after emerging from hibernation, and the next picturing the bear in late summer after gaining a massive amount of weight. Fitz says it was a striking visual representation of how Katmai’s brown bears—larger, coastal cousins of the inland Grizzly bear—pack on the pounds in order to survive the loss of about a third of their body weight during their winter hibernation. (Before hibernation, bears enter a medical state known as hyperphagia, during which they eat a year’s worth of food in six months, sometimes gaining four pounds a day by chowing down dozens of 4,000-calorie salmon daily.)

“For some reason, a sort of light bulb went off in my head at that moment,” Fitz says. “I started talking with a couple of other rangers about the concept of a tournament online, so [park social media followers] could choose who they think is the fattest bear.”

Fitz, whose duties included social media management for the park, posted a series of “before and after” bear photos on the park’s Facebook page and asked fans to vote for their favorite. The response, Fitz says, was huge.

“The one-day event, Fat Bear Tuesday, had a really high level of engagement—far more engagement than anything else we had posted on social,” says Fitz.

Park staff decided to expand the event into a full week for the following year, and in 2015, Fat Bear Week was born. It “quickly started to blow up” over the following years, Fitz says, spreading to other social media sites like Twitter, and Explore.org helped to expand the event with their own social media accounts.

The idea was an “unintended stroke of genius,” says Annenberg Weingarten.

How the Bears at Alaska's Katmai National Park Became Celebrities
This year’s bracket was released on Monday. Katmai National Park and Preserve

Today, the tournament is run through Explore.org’s Fat Bear Week website. Total votes have jumped from 1,693 during “Fat Bear Tuesday” in 2014 to 793,463 votes in 2021, according to Kraft. But it was during the pandemic in 2020, with much of the world transitioning to virtual spaces, that park staff saw engagement skyrocket, Kraft says. Park staff say they believe many people are drawn to the bear cams because they showcase a wilderness success story. With its famed sockeye salmon run and wild habitat that supports a brown bear population larger than its human one, Katmai is home to a healthy ecosystem that’s working exactly the way it should, Kraft says.

“It’s a way to show something that’s happening right, and to talk about the importance of conservation without being doom and gloom,” Kraft adds. “A lot of the time, the messages around climate change and the need for conservation are about all these things that are going wrong. This is a story of, ‘Here, things are working—and let’s keep it that way.’”

The tournament celebrates the importance of fat for healthy bears. Besides serving as a crucial reserve during the months-long hibernation fast, the heft is also key for males to secure fishing spots and mating opportunities. (Adult males typically weigh between 600 and 900 pounds in mid-summer and can weigh well over 1,000 pounds by fall, while females weigh about a third less, according to the National Park Service.) The single-elimination competition invites fans to vote for their favorite in a group of two bears during the week-long event, and the winner advances. Twelve competitors are whittled down over the course of four rounds featuring 11 matchups, and at the end, one is crowned Fat Bear Week champion.

How the Bears at Alaska's Katmai National Park Became Celebrities
First documented at the falls in 2001, Otis is believed to be between 25 and 27 years old. Katmai National Park and Preserve
How the Bears at Alaska's Katmai National Park Became Celebrities
747, sometimes known to his fans as “Bear Force One,” was estimated in September 2020 to weigh 1,400 pounds. Katmai National Park and Preserve

But a Fat Bear Week win doesn’t necessarily mean the victor is the fattest—organizers say it’s more akin to a popularity contest. Most Fat Bear Week observers agree that the largest bear at Brooks Falls is 747, sometimes known to his fans as “Bear Force One,” who was estimated in September 2020 to weigh 1,400 pounds. But while 747 claimed a single victory in 2020, the older and smaller fan favorite Otis has taken home four titles. Much of the debate on social media during Fat Bear Week centers on whether each win will go to an MVP like Otis or to a new challenger.

Organizers have added fresh faces with a Fat Bear, Jr. tournament—a new addition in 2021—which allows chubby cubs to compete against each other before the winner advances to the main Fat Bear Week competition. This year, mini hopefuls sparred off over the course of three rounds in late September, and the nearly two-year-old yearling of mama bear 909 emerged victorious.

909’s yearling will compete against heavyweights Otis and 747, along with other adult male mainstays like the dominant 856, the “enigmatic” 32 Chunk and the pear-shaped 151 Walker, all of whom are featured on the newly-revealed 2022 bracket. While Otis and 747 are nearly always front-runners for Fat Bear champion, this year, support is growing for adult females like mama bear 128 Grazer and empty nester moms 435 Holly and 854 Divot, who persevered through an ordeal becoming trapped in an illegal snare last year. Rangers note the added difficulty of heaping on the heft for moms who are feeding and protecting cubs, and the importance of fat for bears who might be expecting a litter during hibernation, like young female adult contender 901.

Still other fans are rooting for the underbears. Holly could be competing against her own daughter, the sub-adult 335, if the teen bear wins her round against fellow young newcomer 164, known as a bear to watch for his clever fishing technique.

How the Bears at Alaska's Katmai National Park Became Celebrities
The nearly two-year-old yearling of mama bear 909 emerged victorious in this year’s Fat Bear, Jr. competition. Katmai National Park and Preserve
How the Bears at Alaska's Katmai National Park Became Celebrities
Support is growing for adult females like mama bear 128 Grazer. Katmai National Park and Preserve

Fat Bear Week fan Maryam Abadi, an Oregon-based college professor, says she’s rooting this year for 128 Grazer—known to aggressively protect her cubs. A mom herself of two adult children, Abadi says she identifies with Grazer and considers her to be an excellent mother.

Abadi says her daughter first introduced her to Fat Bear Week five or six years ago, but she started watching the bear cams more frequently while working from home during the pandemic in 2020. Now, she says, the Katmai cams are on in the background in her home most days while they are in operation, usually June through October.

“With all the disease and all the bad things going on, we watch these bears to see what nature is supposed to be like,” Abadi says. “It’s the peace it brought into our home to watch nature and how beautiful these animals are.”

Abadi says she is “absolutely fascinated” by the bears and learns from them daily—like taking pointers on patience from Otis, who calmly waits for his dinner until salmon swim his way.

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While webcam visitors aren’t met with a specific “ask,” like donating money, organizers hope viewership will translate into conservation because “you protect what you love,” says Annenberg Weingarten. And Fat Bear Week has most certainly boosted fundraising success for the park, according to Guy Runco, Katmai Conservancy executive director.

“The reach we’ve been allowed to get with Fat Bear Week is beyond anything we could have ever hoped for, really,” Runco says. “People contact us from all around the world about donating, which is awesome.”

Most of the Katmai Conservancy’s donors give small-dollar amounts to initiatives like “The Otis Fund,” which is bolstered by matching funds from Explore.org. Sturm says the partners have been able to raise between $200,000 and $300,000 yearly for the park, funds that go towards ranger salaries, infrastructure and research projects, and an initiative to connect local Indigenous communities with their ancestral lands in remote parts of the park.

“We do raise a substantial amount of funding each year, and we hope it continues to grow,” Sturm says. “It makes a huge difference.”

Fitz, who is also the author of a book about Katmai’s brown bears, says Fat Bear Week is an opportunity for people across the globe to learn about how the bears survive and thrive in Katmai—and the importance of the salmon to the ecosystem. He often reads comments from people who say they weren’t familiar with the park at all before participating in Fat Bear Week.

Fitz hopes the competition will garner a million votes this year, a goal he never could have imagined in 2014.

“It has surpassed my wildest expectations,” Fitz says.

Vote in the 2022 Fat Bear Week competition from Oct. 5 to Oct. 11. Donations can be made online at the Katmai Conservancy.