On the northern Alaskan Peninsula, thousands of brown bears have busily spent the last few weeks gorging themselves on salmon to fatten up and survive the winter. Unbeknown to them, the entire world is watching with a burning question – who will be crowned the Fat Bear Week Champion 2021?
Over the next seven days, the chubbiest bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve will be pitted against each other in a series of knockout rounds. The public can vote online, using any criteria they see fit – such as weight, age, cuteness, or other circumstances – and then next week, a single bear will remain standing.
“From its humble beginnings of Fat Bear Tuesday in 2014 to over 640,000 votes cast last year in 2020, celebrating fat bears and Katmai’s healthy ecosystem has since become a tradition,” the US National Parks Service (NPS) wrote on its website.
The bears are all winners because a fat bear is a healthy bear – fat equals survival.
The annual Fat Bear Week competition
Each year, bears enter a winter den where they remain for the entirety of the long, cold months, unable to eat or drink until they emerge in spring. Over this time, they burn up to a third of their body weight as they draw on their fat reserves just to survive.
This makes the six months they spend out in the world crucial – they need to find and eat a year’s worth of food.
Cue the salmon. These fish are one of the most important components of the Pacific ecosystem. After years at sea, they return to their home rivers in autumn months to spawn. It is an epic journey – and the final leg of their lives. From the moment they hit freshwater, their bodies begin to change and decay, but thousands still struggle upstream to the place they were born, in an attempt to reproduce.
Bears flock to these rivers to gorge themselves on the protein-rich salmon. In times of plenty, bears will strip away the most nutritious parts of the body, such as the brain, skin and eggs, and cast the rest aside for scavengers.
The salmon also end up fertilising the temperate rainforest adjacent to rivers and streams, with benefits for plants, fungi, algae and insects – so to appreciate the gloriously chunky bears is to also have an appreciation of the greater ecosystem.
Katmai is home to one of the largest and healthiest runs of sockeye salmon in the world, with the fish pouring up the rivers from late June to September. The bears rely on the annual return of these fish from their ocean migration. They can chow down dozens of salmons and tens of thousands of calories per day, ready to get them through the lean winter.
This year, 12 finalists have been selected out of the thousands of bears that call the park home.
Fat Bear Junior
This year, NPS also announced a new segment of the competition: Fat Bear Junior. It’s even more adorable than it sounds. Pictures of the tubby cubbies can be found here.
All of this is leading up to the fateful day, Tuesday 5 October, when one bear will reign supreme.
As NPS writes: “All bears are winners but only one true champion will emerge.”