At any given time, hundreds of people tune in to the live brown bear feeds from Explore.org, which show Alaska’s most famous residents of the Katmai National Park and Preserve in their natural habitat. . Viewers can see bears playing with each other or eating salmon in Brooks Falls, but many come to the site to check on one thing in particular: how much fat have the bears grown since their last viewing session.
The mass obsession with brown bears is the basis of Fat Bear Week, an annual online event hosted by Katmai National Park. “Working on the webcam, and even before that, just being a ranger in Katmai and talking to people when they looked at the bears, I knew bears were very charismatic creatures,” Mike Fitz, Resident Naturalist for Explore .org and the founder of Fat Bear Week, says Mental Floss. “I knew people are very curious about [the bears’] lives and how they make a living, and the goal of Fat Bear Week is to make some of these stories more accessible to people and to do so in a fun way.
What started in 2014 as a one-day event (Fat Bear Tuesday) has since grown into a much anticipated international event. Approximately 55,000 voters participated in Fat Bear Week 2018. In 2019, that number increased to 250,000 and in 2020 it has climbed to 650,000. Already, the 2021 event, which runs from September 29 to 5 October 2021, promises to be even bigger thanks to a gigantic bruin ready to defend his Fat Bear title and a fun (and totally adorable) new twist.
A basic idea
For people who prefer to watch wildlife webcams rather than sports, Fat Bear Week is essentially the madness of March. For a week at the end of September and the beginning of October, Katmai posts on the Internet parentheses of the biggest bears in the park. Audience members choose which bear they think is the biggest (which they judge by literal height, how much weight they’ve gained since spring, or how much the bear flaunts their fat) , and the portly candidates with the most votes advance in the competition. At the end of the week, the bear that wins the final match is named the biggest of the year.
“It’s celebrating something that we don’t normally get the chance to celebrate, which is fat, and fat as something good and positive, because bears survive on their fat,” said Naomi Boak, Katmai National Park Media Ranger, at Mental Floss.
Mike Fitz found inspiration for Fat Bear Tuesday by perusing the live commentary during his days as a ranger for Katmai National Park. “Someone in the comments watching the webcam had a picture of a bear in July and also in September, and they were like, ‘wow, look at the difference!'”
He shared the commentary with his colleagues, and together they brainstormed ways to turn the fun watching into an opportunity for public engagement. They came up with a smaller one-day version of the Big Bear Contest, and when they posted their very first materials on Katmai’s Facebook page, the response was encouraging. While the park didn’t have the largest social media presence at the time, its existing followers were excited about the campaign.
“Otis, he’s huge! I’m a little worried he’ll explode,” one commentator said of this year’s winner ahead of the event.
“What a difference a little (a lot) of salmon can make! Another subscriber wrote when the media went live.
Fat Bear Tuesday was a success.
“It was a great way to communicate the different ways that bears get bigger and why they get bigger and what that means for their survival, so we decided to extend it to a whole week to give more people the opportunity to participate, “Fitz said. Katmai launched her first official Fat Bear Week the following year, and her reach grew exponentially in the years that followed.
“I kind of had an idea based on my interactions with audiences in the past that people would appreciate it, but I had no idea that it would get as big as it is today,” says Fitz. “It really exceeded expectations.”
Behind the parentheses
The event is no longer the casual social media engagement experience it was seven years ago. To prepare the materials for the end of September, Boak starts planning months in advance. “I start as soon as I receive [to the park] in May by taking photos of skinny bears, ”she said. “Because in Fat Bear Week we juxtapose a skinny photo with the biggest photo we can get at the end of the season, so people can really see what a great accomplishment it is for the bears to. get fat to survive six months of starvation. “
Although Fat Bear Week is a digital campaign, much of the work required to set it up takes place in the field. To get his photos, Boak spends weeks prowling around areas where bears are known to frequent, such as Brooks Falls. A good photo can increase a competitor’s chances of winning, and taking the perfect photo is often easier said than done. The best time to take an ‘after’ photo of a bear is in September, when it’s about to reach its hibernating body, but that’s also when it spends most of the time. of his time in the water gorging on salmon. This makes it difficult to capture their entire figure in all its glory on camera, although it is not impossible.
“We basically stalk bears for a few weeks,” Boak says. “With 747, our winner from last year, I literally stalked him for two weeks to get enough light that wasn’t in the fog and to see him come out of the water. I had to go to the falls at different times, I had to go around the park. Meanwhile, visitors take their own photos of amateur bears. guests, and many are ready to share their Fat Bear Week shots.
Learning to recognize bears is a skill in itself. After observing them for months, if not years, in many cases, Boak and his colleagues begin to recognize the physical and behavioral characteristics that make them unique. (Behavior becomes especially important when bears begin their pre-hibernation transformations.) Katmai also has bear monitors whose job it is to observe individual specimens for hours on end and note their identifiable traits, including levels of d energy, sleep patterns and relationships with other bears.
All that hard work pays off in the fall. Fat Bear Week is one of Katmai National Park’s most anticipated annual events, and it’s one of the best examples of how national parks can use technology to raise awareness of what’s going on in the world. within their borders. Katmai is one of the few places on Earth where the ecosystem is functioning to its full potential. The park has seen a record run of salmon last year, and the vital fat brown bears have gained as a result is a natural wonder. By highlighting such a pristine environment, those involved in Fat Bear Week hope to remind the public of what is at stake as environmental threats escalate.
“The phenomenon we enjoy at Brooks Falls of the bear fishery there is entirely dependent on a healthy salmon run, and with climate change and other threats to salmon, such as large-scale development and mining, I think the more people are aware of this healthy, productive ecosystem, the better, ”says Fitz.
The conservation message underlies the campaign, but above all, Fat Bear Week is a chance for the people who put it together and the fans who vote from home to have fun. “I think it’s a great relief, a happy time and a happy, fun event to stop thinking about fires, hurricanes and pandemics,” Boak said.
Fat Bear Week 2021 will be a little different from previous years. For the second year in a row, the competition will be held on Explore.org to open it to participants without a Facebook account. And for the first time ever, voters will be able to choose their favorite chubby cubs in addition to the big mature bears.
Fat Bear Jr. runs from September 23-24, and the small winner of this competition will take on the big guys and ladies when the official Fat Bear week kicks off on September 29th. After a week of voting, the winner of Fat Bear Week 2021 will be determined on October 5.
Katmai’s bears are still getting bigger for the winter, but fans who have watched bears all year already know which suitors to keep an eye out for. “I can’t wait to see whether or not 747 can defend their title,” said Fitz. “He’s a giant bear, he’s the biggest bear I’ve ever seen. Last year he weighed around 1,400 pounds, so I’d be surprised if he’s smaller this year.
Boak agrees that 747 is the bear to beat: “I think the current champion is very competitive. Her stomach is already touching the ground. But part of the fun of Fat Bear Week is its unpredictability. Until the final votes are cast in October, no one, not even the experts who follow the bears in the park, knows who will claim the title.
“Sometimes there are some really tense times for us, where we think this bear is going to win, and then all of a sudden a dark horse or a black bear comes across as the fan favorite,” says Boak. “It’s going to be very competitive, so who knows, because it’s the public that decides, not us.”