Fat Bear Week is here – the much-anticipated annual contest that separates the belly bursting salmon-guzzlers from the floofy fakers. As summer draws to a close in the Northern Hemisphere, the brown bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve gather en masse at Brooks Falls to gorge themselves on salmon in a last-stage effort to reach maximum corpulence before retiring to their winter dens.

Bear 747 flaunting his flab. Image © NPS Photo/C. Spencer

In celebration of the bears’ ample girth, each year the National Park Service hosts an online, March-Madness-style competition in which one bruin is voted champion of the chonk. Before and after photos taken by park rangers are used to pit the tubbiest bears against each other in head-to-head playoffs, with the winner decided by public vote.

Fat Bear Week began as a single-day event on the Katmai National Park Facebook page in 2014, but has since bulged into a global phenomenon. Around 55,000 bear-lovers took part in the competition in 2018 and that number increased nearly five-fold the following year. Last year’s contest attracted a cool 650,000 voters, proving that it's tough to resist the lure of a portly bear.

“It’s celebrating something we normally don’t get to celebrate, which is fatness, and fatness as something good and positive, because the bears survive on their fat,” Katmai National Park’s media ranger Naomi Boak told Mental Floss. As the weather grows colder, bears prepare for their annual hibernation. Once fattened up, they will hide out in dens where they will survive entirely on their fat reserves until spring. It’s a challenge that requires some significant binge-eating.

Explore.org's livestream from Brooks Falls offers some excellent insights into the Fat Bear Week contenders.

While the competition serves as a joyous distraction from pandemics and politics, it’s about more than just chortling at beefy bears. “Fat Bear Week is a celebration of success and survival. It is a way to celebrate the resilience, adaptability and strength of Katmai’s brown bears,” the Katmai National Park Service website explains. It’s also an excellent example of how national parks can raise awareness and engage online audiences through technology.

Katmai’s sockeye salmon run – although a little late this year – is one of the largest and healthiest left on the planet, and the nutrient-rich fish are a main source of food for the region’s massive brown bear population. “The phenomenon we enjoy at Brooks Falls of bears fishing there is completely dependent on a healthy salmon run,” Mike Fitz, naturalist for Explore.org and founder of Fat Bear Week, explained to Mental Floss. “And with climate change and other threats to salmon, like large-scale development and mining, I think the more people that are aware of this healthy, productive ecosystem, the better.”

And what better way to spread awareness than with big-bootied bears.

Monumental girth is not everything though, as veterans of the competition will tell you. Some voters consider a host of factors when sizing up their chosen victor. Age, life history, photogenicity and even coat colour could all play a role. Maybe you’ve got your eye on a junior competitor still working its way up the ranks? Subadult bears may not have the heft of their fully grown rivals, but proportionally the youngsters can pack on the pounds at a faster rate. This year’s competition stars a fresh-faced chubby cub – the offspring of Bear 132 – who was voted in following a pre-week contest to introduce new talent to the pool. Maybe this newbie has the chops to go all the way.

Fluff or fat? Bear 132 is a new contender in Fat Bear Week 2021. Image © NPS Photo/C. Spencer

Or perhaps a meaty backstory is more appealing to you than a meaty backside. Mother bears usually have their work cut out for them in the weight-gain game as they must care for their youngsters before filling their own bellies. Katmai is home to some truly dedicated bear moms that have proven their strength against the rough-and-tough males of the Brooks River. Bear 402 – a big-boned supermom who has weaned more cubs than any other known female at Brooks Falls – is a skilled angler and scavenger and looks in fine shape to raise another litter. Could this be her year for the title?

And then there are the stalwarts. The old guard. The giants of the game who have paid their dues, but may now be relegated to less favourable fishing spots as younger, stronger bears push them aside. Your vote can put one of them back on top.

You can dive into the contestant’s histories on the Fat Bear Week website or study up on their form at the Explore.org live stream (embedded above). The competition kicked off on September 29, and concludes on Fat Bear Tuesday, October 5. Best you get voting.

As the National Park Service. points out: “All bears are winners but only one true champion will emerge.”

Header image: NPS Photo/L. Law