Published On: Fri, Oct 4th, 2019

Fat Bear Week: behind the scenes of the viral social media campaign


It’s that time of the year when we can indulge in a live stream of bears stuffing their faces and then vote for our favorite glutton from the safety of our desks and couches. Fat Bear Week is here!

This is the fifth anniversary of Katmai National Park’s popular March Madness-style competition. There are two brackets each day during the week that pit one big bear against another. The chunkiest champion will be crowned during the culmination of the tournament on Fat Bear Tuesday, October 8th — and this year, there will be a twist. Voters will choose which bears they think are fattest based on pictures and bear cam footage. But for the first time, thanks to 3D scans of the bears, Katmai will also be able to announce which bear is actually the fattest.

Win or lose, all of the bears have helped raise the remote national park’s profile. Over three days this week, Katmai’s Facebook page views jumped from 2,000 to more than 70,000, and its posts reached up to 730,000 people. In less than two days, the page nearly reached the total amount of votes it got during all of Fat Bear Week last year. Fans are so enthusiastic that they’re making campaign posters for their favorite contestants.

A lot of body fat is a sign of good health and a strong chance of survival for the brown bears, according to Katmai. The bears are bulking up to get them through winter hibernation, during which a bear can lose as much as one-third of its body mass while spending up to half the year in its den.

There’s a lot that goes into getting to know the bears on their mission to pack on the pounds, and it’s a tough job to narrow down which of Katmai’s more than 2,000 bears will face off in the competition. The Verge spoke with Katmai Conservancy media rangers Naomi Boak and Brooklyn White, who are bringing us this glorious buffet of cuteness, to learn what goes on behind the scenes during Fat Bear Week. The two shoot photos of the bears and write up their descriptions and social media posts. When they’re out in the field, Boak says they’re “the last rangers to leave so that we can get the fattest pictures.”

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How do you get to know each bear?

Naomi Boak: If you watch a bear over a season and over the years, you get to see how they behave, what their relationships to other bears are. You get to recognize a lot of their physical characteristics. Although sometimes, I must say, at the end of the season when a bear has changed so much physically, I rely a lot on behavioral characteristics to really identify a bear. But there are lots of soap operas and dramas and comedies. All these things happen over a season and over the years.

Brooklyn White: We rely on bear monitors that collect photographs and data. They will have monitoring sessions that last between two and three hours, stationed at different points along the river. During that time, they then collect data about their interactions, people they see along the river, if there were any vehicle noises that occurred, write down what the bears are doing, if they’re sleeping, fishing, things like that. And then we’ll also document and identify the bears that they’re seeing.

How do you decide which bears go up against each other in the bracket?

NB: We want to let people know about all the different bears and how they survive in this incredible ecosystem that we have along the Brooks River. So we have the usual suspects: the big giant boars, adult bears. We have single sows. We have sows with cubs, so multitasking moms. We have cubs who really increase their size enormously. That first year, they go from zero to 60. The next year, a yearling can more than double its size. And then we have the subadults [adolescents] who grow a lot and gain a lot of weight and fat. But they look like gangly teenagers. We want them all in this competition.


“Someday, you can win Fat Bear Week.”
Photo by K. Stenberg / Katmai National Park

There are two other criteria: one is that they be bears that people who have been following the bears for years would recognize so that the fan base can come out and root for their favorite bears. A lot of people make campaign posters, which are just so funny. And also, we have to have both skinny pictures and fat pictures of the bears. All season, we media rangers are out taking as many pictures as we can in profile so we have fair and equitable pictures. We ask every visitor who comes to see what pictures they have, and some have very generously offered up their pictures to us. And it’s just, you know, it’s a fun process —difficult but fun.

What do you hope the social media attention around Fat Bear Week will accomplish?

BW: Our park is so remote. It is extremely difficult to get there. You’re talking multiple planes, probably a boat or two. And so what social media allows us to do is bring those people in that may never have an opportunity. Many of those that watch the bear cams are never going to have a chance to step foot in the park. And so the social media component allows those people that don’t have the financial ability to get here, that don’t have the mobility to be able to do a trek to get to the park, to have access. We are able to kind of give a front-row seat to those folks that wouldn’t have that opportunity to be involved, and then maybe even inspire somebody who would have a chance to get out there. There were folks that came out to Katmai just because of posts that have happened on the previous social media campaign for Fat Bear Week. [They] showed up this year to experience Katmai, to see the bears. And so what that told Naomi and I is that social media is absolutely the way to communicate these important ideas and to be able to share our mission about the resources, clean water, and fat bears.

People can vote on Facebook for which bears they think are the fattest based on pictures. Do we know which bear is actually the biggest?

BW: Our scientific team in the park was able to get some scans [using a 3D scanner] of different bears and was able to then look at the volume of that bear, do some comparative masses of water and fat, get some estimated numbers in regards to poundage and at least give us a nice relative weight for the bears along the Brooks River, and discover what bear truly is the heaviest. We have a number for what bear we believe to be the fattest that we will be able to then reveal after Fat Bear Week is concluded.



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Fat Bear Week: behind the scenes of the viral social media campaign