It is something like a soap opera, though one with a very short season. Over just a few warm months, its floofy cast appears after a long winter’s sleep and descends on Brooks Falls in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. There, the players scuffle for dominance, rear cubs, sometimes share spoils, and — most important — grow comically, almost absurdly fat on the world’s largest sockeye salmon run.
The bears become so mammoth that the park for five years has run an annual contest to name the most blubbery bear of all. Fat Bear Week, which began Wednesday, has a March Madness-style bracket and voting on Facebook, where the park provides before-and-after shots and a gushing stream of fat puns. The bears can gain two pounds of fat a day funneling fish ahead of hibernation, resulting in jaw-dropping physical transformations.
But Fat Bear Week is only the gimmicky finale of a summertime reality show watched obsessively by a swelling stable of fans around the world. Explore.org, a philanthropic multimedia organization, live-streams a “bear cam” from several spots along the Brooks River. When it launched in 2012, it had about 20,000 unique sessions a day (that is, the number of times someone started watching it); now it has about 80,000, making it the most popular of explore.org’s various webcams, said Courtney Johnson, the group’s social media director.
There is no shortage of live animal cams, but few offer the same breadth of characters. The park says dozens of bears, which aren’t typically social animals, regularly fish the falls. But because the park is remote and expensive to visit, few people see them in person. Bear cam watchers say the footage provides a mesmerizing view of bears as individuals that must employ varying strategies to navigate a crowd and win the resources they need to survive.
“The huge part at Brooks Falls is socializing — figuring out how they fit into this society, and how not to step on toes and how to behave,” said Marsha Chez, a regular bear cam watcher from Aurora, Ore., who writes a tabloid-like newsletter on the bears’ antics. “So there’s a lot of social grace. They have really learned where they fit in.”
Ursine conflicts do occur, which participants in the cam’s very animated chat room discuss as though they were scenes from “Downton Abbey.” The chat has spawned meetup groups and even romances between regulars, Johnson said.
“Some people get really emotionally invested in one bear succeeding,” said Cat Yurkovich, who always has the bear cam running on one of the two computer monitors she uses for her administrative job at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. “Some keep Excel spreadsheets on when certain bears return and when they’re last seen. People get really into data.”
Yurkovich is more interested in the bears’ fishing tactics and the science of it all — a topic she called “not extremely popular” in the chat, which she helps moderate.
Passions sometimes run high. This summer, she said, “there was a lot of vitriol” in the chat about park visitors getting too close to bears; other chatters despise bear 856 — who has been implicated in the death of a cub — and want him removed from the scene.
“That’s when I kind of have to step in and say, ‘This is the science behind it and this is why he’s doing what he’s doing, and it’s why he’s the dominant bear,’ ” Yurkovich said. “He’s not a bad bear.”
But regulars say usually things stay civil, even lovely. Chez, an artist, said she misses the bear cam terribly when it’s off for hibernation. Once it revs up in June, it’s always on at her home office, and she starts churning out her “Brooks River Tattle-er,” an online publication she described as “gossip from the bears’ point of view.”
Chez and about 10 other bear cam aficionados have met twice in the Portland area over beers, burgers and bear talk. “It’s just — we’ve fallen in love,” she said. “It’s a bizarre thing. I don’t understand it. I never thought I’d be watching bears. Ever, ever, ever. But now I can’t take my eyes off them.”
Although she is a full-time devotee, Chez said she finds Fat Bear Week thrilling. So do others: Fans make digital “posters” for their favorite fatsos, “the same way you would in an election in high school,” she said. Because she is editor of the unofficial bear publication, Chez produces posters for all candidates. But she does not hesitate to say that she’s rooting for bear 747, an animal she said “gets along with almost everybody” and is “humongous.”
“My bears usually don’t win,” she said. “This year I think I’m going for a sure thing.”
Mike Fitz, a former Katmai park ranger who is now an Explore.org naturalist, has also endorsed 747 (whose number, the park insists, was randomly assigned, despite his similarity to a jumbo jet).
“Your Fat Bear Week vote can be based on any number of factors,” Fitz wrote on his website. But 747, he said, is “a bear who is both the fattest and the largest, two traits that are not mutually exclusive.”
The contest is wide open this year. Two-time winner 480 Otis, an aging, even-tempered bear with a floppy right ear and missing teeth, was ousted Wednesday. 409 Beadnose, a sow who took gold last year and in 2015, has not been seen this year, fueling fears that she did not survive the winter. (Chez said she is holding out hope that Beadnose had cubs and is finding her groceries in a less male-heavy spot this year.)
Yurkovich’s favorite bear is 503, a contestant she said is “just so goofy,” and prone to attention gaps that allow other bears to steal his salmon. But her pick for the contest is 435 Holly, who is known for her smarts and for depositing her cubs in a tree at a nearby campsite so she can nap.
Holly is also known for — there is no delicate way to say this — her big butt.
“People like her because her fur coalesces with her fat,” on her rear, where a darker stripe runs down the center, Yurkovich said. “It looks like she’s wearing a thong.”