In fact, 901 got so fat she had us asking “economy, who?” The master of inflation ballooned so spectacularly one fan tweeted: “901 is so fat her legs look like they were put on backwards.” But in this case, Goliath won.
For the uninitiated, Fat Bear Week is a single-elimination tournament that pits 12 brown bears in Alaska’s Katmai against each other in an online bracket for the sake of conservation awareness. As the bears finish beefing up for winter hibernation, fans vote on Explore.org for their favorite contender until one is chosen as the fattest on Fat Bear Tuesday.
The competition isn’t about which bear is literally the fattest. Just because male brown bears can be double the size of females, that doesn’t mean they’ll always win. Lian Law, a visual information specialist at Katmai, says when you see them in person, 747 does indeed look to be double the size of 901.
Many fans can and do vote for what appears to be the largest bear, but many others vote based on a bear’s relative fatness, its personality (as observed on Katmai’s live Bear Cams) or the obstacles it overcame to get so fat that season.
However, there is no denying the enormity of 747 , who won Fat Bear Week in 2020 and weighs an estimated 1,400 pounds.
“You’re looking at one of the largest bears in the world,” Mike Fitz, Fat Bear Week creator and Explore.org resident naturalist, said on Fat Bear Tuesday. “We don’t know exactly how big he is, but he is a giant among bears … it may be a long time before we see another bear as big as him.”
From her before and after photos, 901 appeared to have tripled in size over the summer leading rangers to guess she may be pregnant. Meanwhile, 747 started off the season big but came back to the river this year with a wonky ear, “probably because he got in a fight with another bear and maybe didn’t fare well,” Fitz said. That gave fans a reason to rally behind Bear Force One’s big behind.
The two bears blubbered their way through the finals, trouncing profoundly fat fan-favorites along the way.
“There were certainly upsets in some people’s minds, at least,” Fitz said.
Perhaps the most notable upset was how easily four-time champion 480 Otis was knocked out of the bracket. Despite having such a strong fan base, the 26-year-old bear was clobbered by 901 and her blond-rimmed ears by more than 23,000 votes.
Fitz wasn’t surprised. Unlike when Otis won last year (after arriving to Brooks Falls late and severely thin), he didn’t have as impressive gains to keep his crown.
“He has such a devoted fan base that I think anytime he’s in the competition, he has a chance to go pretty far, if not win,” Fitz said. “But this year … I don’t think the physical transformation for him was as dramatic as last year.”
🚨🚨🚨FAT BEAR WEEK SCANDAL🚨🚨🚨
Like bears stuff their face with fish, our ballot box, too, has been stuffed.
— Katmai National Park (@KatmaiNPS) October 10, 2022
But the biggest shock of the week came Monday when contest officials said someone — or some people — voted illegally during the semifinal matchup between 747 and 435 Holly.
Candice Rusch, spokesperson for Explore.org, said that about 90 percent of the fraudulent votes were cast for 435 Holly, who ended up losing in the semifinals by about 7,500 votes. A few illegal votes were cast for 747, leading the Explore.org team to believe it was an effort by a different scammer or an attempt to throw off the scent of the larger ruse.
“It’s disappointing,” Fitz said. “The vote is it’s made-up. The bears don’t know what’s going on, and they don’t receive any reward from us except our admiration from a distance.”
Once the issue was spotted, Explore.org added a captcha step to the voting process to weed out bots and other automated attacks and went back to review the votes for the other stages of the competition. They ruled out other widespread foul play.
To avoid giving bad actors any ideas for the future, Rusch said they won’t release additional details of exactly how the cheating took place, but noted that it was fairly easy for the team to filter out the spam votes.
Jessica Trucksess, a Fat Bear Week superfan, told The Washington Post that even though 435 Holly was her pick to win, she would only want her to earn the crown “fair and square” and that it saddened her that someone would “cheat in something so silly and fun.”
After some discussions of the scandal in the fan Facebook group and fresh campaigns for their favorite bears, the spirit and enthusiasm returned for the finals, says fan Layla Manning, who was rooting for 901.
“The bears of Katmai, these live cams, these Facebook groups, this contest — it’s a refuge for us as much as it is for the bears,” Manning said in an email. “So many people find their peace and camaraderie here.”
Despite the cheating scandal, Fat Bear Week 2022 was an overwhelming success, according to organizers.
“We’ve been able to give more people the opportunity to learn about Katmai’s brown bears, make that transition to watching them on the Bear Cams and in the long run, wanting to become a steward of the landscape and protect their habitat,” Fitz said.