Brown bear 856 is an aggressive male suspected of being the father of bear 503, who as a cub was abandoned by his mother, bear 402, and then adopted by bear 435 Holly, who these days is so rotund that she appears to have multiple chins.
Most of those same bears are now rivals in a heated battle — over pudge, not power.
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 Oct. 2, has a March Madness-style bracket and voting on Facebook, where the park provides before-and-after shots and an endless stream of fat puns. The bears can gain two pounds of fat a day funneling fish ahead of hibernation, resulting in some 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, livestreams a “bearcam” 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. Bearcam 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 bearcam 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 bearcam running on one of the two computer monitors she uses for her administrative job at Southern Illinois University 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.
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 last week. 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.
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.”