Every summer, from about mid-June to mid-October, the grizzly bears at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska are featured in a live-cam show that you can watch via Explore.org. And once or twice a week during that time period, Mike Fitz, resident naturalist with Explore.org, hosts a live “chat” with the audience.
His talks last about a half hour and typically focus on various aspects of bear behavior, bear biology (such as denning and hibernation, and dominance and bear hierarchies), ecology and natural history. During play-by-play broadcasts, Mike Fitz and/or a National Park Service ranger narrates the bear-and-salmon activity currently being seen on camera, “sort of like how commentators add their insight to a sporting event,” Fitz explains.
And somewhat like with a sporting event or a reality TV show, at the end of the season the bear who has gained the most weight is named the winner of the Fat Bear Contest. This is no frivolous, fat-shaming exercise, however. Weight gain is critical for these bears in order to survive the long months of hibernation. But it’s still a heck of a lot of fun—especially, for the thousands of fans who follow the bears on the live-cam site, on Facebook and on Twitter.
Brooks Falls is summer’s salmon central
Katmai National Park is home to approximately 2,200 brown bears and claims to have the highest concentration of them in the world. That density is due to an abundant food: salmon. Last year, Katmai National Park reported that almost 62 million sockeye salmon migrated through the park and the neighboring Bristol Bay. And that allows the bears here to be some of the biggest in the world.
After the bears of Katmai emerge from hibernation in the spring, they descend on a mile-long stretch of the Brooks River, where sockeye salmon are moving upstream to spawn. The waterfalls here create a temporary barrier for the salmon, making it an ideal fishing spot for hungry brown bears. It also makes it the perfect spot for us to watch them. A viewing platform here has been equipped with an Explore.org webcam, where the bears’ crowd-pleasing belly flops, dramatic cub rescues and occasional salmon-stealing are streamed live. (Other cameras are located at the lower part of the river, at the riffles, underwater and on top of Dumpling Mountain.)
Surviving the dormant state of hibernation requires a lot of energy; by the time the bears leave their dens in the spring, they’ve lost up to a third of their body weight or even more if they are lactating females. Brown bears essentially need to eat a year’s worth of food in six months in order to make it through the long winter hibernation. Though brown bears are omnivorous and eat berries, fruit, leaves, nuts and roots, salmon make up a large part of the Katmai bears’ diets. They eat up to 40 salmon per day: the equivalent of 100 pounds and 100,000 calories. For these bears, summer is the time for gaining 200 to 300 pounds, possibly pushing them over the 1,000-pound mark.
The most activity seen on the Brooks Falls bear cams happens in July and September. In those months, Brooks River has a high overall density of fish; but in August, smaller streams in the area tend to have more salmon, so the bears follow them there.
“I estimate that I’ve seen at least 35 to 40 different independent bears at Brooks River so far this summer,” Mike Fitz recently told me by e-mail, “including at least 15 females with cubs.” (The Katmai Bearcams Wiki has a list of females and cubs seen this year.)
Fishing fashions are multifarious
Bears often use the same fishing techniques they learned from their mothers, such as:
• The dash-and-grab: Early in the season, when salmon are plentiful, some bears will chase after fish and use their paws to pin them to the river bottom. This technique requires a substantial amount of energy, so it is quickly abandoned when the number of salmon in the water thins.
• Diving: Most bears prefer to “snorkel” (see Snorkeling, below), but occasionally a bear will completely submerge itself looking for fish.
• Pirating: Some bears steal fish from other bears, particularly early in the season, when hibernation has left them famished. Upon catching a fish, smaller bears will often run away from the river and into the forest to avoid the hungry advances of a larger bear.
• The sit-and-wait: The most dominant bears get the best fishing spots; they sit in the highly coveted, what I call “Jacuzzis” and wait for fish to swim by. When they do, the bears quickly pin the fish to the river bottom or against their bodies.
• Snorkeling: Many bears employ the technique of snorkeling, or swimming on the surface of the water with their faces submerged. This strategy is especially useful in the fall, when dead and dying fish are often just below the surface.
• The stand-and-wait: Some bears like to stand precariously on the top of Brooks Falls and wait for the fish to jump close enough that they can catch them in their mouths. This works only when the river is crowded with jumping salmon.
“I enjoy watching all fishing styles,” says Mike Fitz, “as each one demonstrates a bear’s mindfulness and ability to learn and adapt to changing circumstances. I admire [the sit-and-wait technique] for its efficiency. In contrast, the dash-and-grab shows a bear’s athleticism and strength. I can’t imagine trying to run through a river and catch salmon successfully, but bears are able to do it.”
Not all fun for fan favorites
The fact that they can splash through rivers and pluck salmon out of the water is what makes them so fascinating to watch.
The “regular bears” have feverish followings online, where fans chronicle their movements and histories. One favorite is 480 Otis—a name that combines his official, park-assigned number and a more common moniker—a bruin who is thought to be about 20 years old with a floppy right ear who calmly fishes in a riverside spot that followers call his “office.”
Mike Fitz, however, has a difficult time choosing a favorite bear. “Each one leads a unique life and can tell us much if we are willing to watch carefully,” he tells me. “480 Otis is particularly popular among much of the bear-cam audience because he is easily recognizable and demonstrates how an older bear copes with competition from younger, larger bears. I like to watch the ebb and flow of the bear hierarchy at the falls, particularly how large, male bears, such as 747 and 856, maintain their positions near the top. When I first started watching bears at Brooks River [in 2007 while working as a park ranger for Katmai National Park], both 747 and 856 were young adults who didn’t draw my attention. At the time, I didn’t notice any indication they would be as large and dominant as they are now.
“However,” he is quick to add, “the activity we see is no game for the animals. On a play-by-play, we never know what we might see, and the behavior of the animals helps us better understand how they survive what is often a harsh and competitive environment.”
Fifth Fat Bear Contest best bets
Fan favorite Otis is a two-time winner of Fat Bear Week (known as the Fat Bear Contest), which usually takes place in early October. But last year, in 2018, in the fourth year of the Fat Bear Contest, he lost to 409 Beadnose in his first matchup. And while social media users seemed to concede that the bear Mike referred to who is named simply 747 (described on Facebook as a “jelly-bellied jumbo jet”) was bigger, they liked 409’s backstory: a single mom trying to make it in the wild.
The Fat Bear Contest got its start in 2014 when park rangers paired early-season and late-season photos of the same bears together on Facebook and had the public vote on who they thought was the fattest. It proved to be so popular that the tournament was expanded to cover a whole week in 2015, hence Fat Bear Week.
I asked Mike Fitz who he thinks may be a shoo-in this year. “My early favorites to win Fat Bear Week 2019 are 747 and 128 Grazer. 747 is as fat as many bears are in the fall right now. 128 Grazer is an adult female who is very skilled at fishing the lip and other places at the falls. Importantly, she is not raising cubs, so she can devote all her energy to herself,” says Fitz.
At the end of the season, Mike Fitz hopes that “watching the cams, especially the lives of the bears, [will] help us understand their mindfulness and individuality. Each bear is unique with a unique story to tell about life and survival. The gathering of the bears at Brooks River also illustrates Katmai’s and Bristol Bay’s health and productivity. It’s a place where the ecological potential has been fully realized, which is increasingly rare in our world.”
In the end, then, the obsession with watching the bears of Brooks Falls (that so many of us have, including myself!) and the Fat Bear Contest are, really, a celebration of successful bears; those who are the best at what they need to do.
And, I say, may the best—and in this case, fattest—bear win.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,