It’s finally here. It’s the greatest holiday of the year. It’s a global celebration of the Earth in all its glorious roundness—particularly the roundness of its bears. That’s right: it’s Fat Bear Week.
Hosted by Katmai Conservancy, Fat Bear Week has captivated an ever-increasing fanbase, especially in the past few years. But if you haven’t heard of it, imagine March Madness—if the basketball players were brown bears who devoted their summers to salmon consumption. This is a week-long, single-elimination bracket tournament that has taken place annually since its creation in 2014.
Fans vote daily for the bear they believe to be the most rotund or to have exhibited the most growth, based on before-and-after photos provided by Katmai National Park rangers. This year, voting began on Oct. 4 and will culminate on Oct. 10—Fat Bear Tuesday—with the crowning of the 2023 champion.
It’s likely that if you haven’t heard about Fat Bear Week, you’ve also never heard of Katmai Conservancy, the official nonprofit partner of Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. The park was established in 1918 to protect the volcanically devastated region surrounding Novarupta and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. It spans nearly 4 million acres, making it the fourth largest park in the US National Park system.
This fact tends to surprise people. When you ask someone to name a national park, they’ll usually say Yellowstone or Yosemite. But all of the nation’s four largest parks are Alaskan. This speaks to the state’s expansive landscape and biodiversity, but also to its disconnect from the US mainland.
This is where the fat bears come in. According to the Conservancy’s website, their team “work[s] for the day when Katmai National Park and all public lands are understood and appreciated, preserved and conserved, and enjoyed by all.” Fat Bear Week is just one initiative working toward that goal. Attracting fans and gaining the attention of major news outlets like the Washington Post and NPR, the fat bears of Katmai have done more than their fair share of raising awareness about the park.
This increased awareness is what helps keep Katmai, with its range of forests, waterfalls, and wildlife, beautiful. Without donations from supporters and revenue from tourists, any national park struggles to maintain its preservation and research goals. For Katmai in particular, “Donations raised allow Katmai Conservancy to support education and interpretation, both within and outside of Katmai National Park, and funding for important research on Katmai’s brown bears and extensive human history. Other initiatives include promoting youth engagement in the local and online communities, working to ensure the environmental sustainability of the fragile ecosystems of Katmai, and the necessary improvement of Park infrastructure.”
But why should we care about fat bears? In short: a fat bear is a healthy bear! And a healthy bear is a sign of a healthy environment. The bears’ impressive weight gain points to plentiful salmon populations and balance in the Alaskan ecosystem. So, let’s join Katmai in celebrating its hardworking resident brown bears.
The 2021 Fat Bear Week title went to 480 ‘Otis.’ One of Katmai’s oldest residents, at around 27-28 years old, Otis was the first champion and has since won three other titles. He’s looking a bit frail this year, and some Instagram commenters have expressed their concern about the brown bear elder, but he’s still a strong contender on the 2023 ballot.
In 2022, Bear 747 claimed the crown for the second time, after his first victory in 2020. Now he and his two rivals, 901 and 32 ‘Chunk,’ have all returned for a rematch.
This year’s bracket holds an impressive array of 12 total contenders. The newest among them is 806’s Spring Cub, the 2023 champion of Fat Bear Junior—a two-day prelude to Fat Bear Week in which one bear cub is selected to compete in the main bracket tournament. A cub has yet to win, but 806’s Spring Cub looks like he’ll stand a chance against some of his adult competitors. He has already beaten Bear 428 in the first round of voting.
Who will win in 2023? We’ll have to wait and see. Many fans here at Rollins seem confident that 32 ‘Chunk’ will swipe his lost 2020 title, or that hardworking single mom 128 ‘Grazer’ will barrel her way to the top. But ultimately, you decide.
To vote, visit fatbearweek.com every day from now through Oct. 10. Voting opens at noon and closes at 9 p.m. EDT. You can also follow Katmai National Park, Katmai Conservancy, and Fat Bear Week on Instagram for daily updates.
And if you enjoy Fat Bear Week in any capacity, please consider supporting Katmai’s conservation effort. You can shop for some quality fat bear merch or donate to the Otis fund at katmaiconservancy.org. If you can’t support financially, tell your friends and family, neighbors and coworkers, lovers and enemies about all the great work being done by Katmai’s team—humans and bears alike.
Happy voting… and may the fattest bear win.
The opinions on this page do not necessarily reflect those of The Sandspur or Rollins College. Have any additional tips or opinions? Send us your response. We want to hear your voice.