2023’s Fat Bear Week Queen is 128 ‘Grazer’
Otis schmotis: “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings”.
NOTE: this article was originally published to the Washington Post’s Apple News channel on October 10, 2023. It was written by Natalie B. Compton.
In a battle of beauty and the beast, beauty won
After a week of enormous upsets and shocking twists, online voters have crowned 128 “Grazer” as the Fat Bear Week champion. It’s the first title for the fierce mother and expert angler, who defeated 32 “Chunk” in the Fat Bear Tuesday finals by more than 85,000 votes.
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Grazer is the third sow, or female bear, to win the tournament. She joins Holly, who won in 2019, and 2018 winner 409 “Beadnose,” who is believed to have died.
“The girls did really well this year,” said Naomi Boak, a media ranger at Katmai National Park and Preserve. “It was the year of the sow.”
With her blonde ears and bodacious bod, Grazer has built a reputation for being a warrior mother, quick to challenge any of the top bears at Brooks River to protect her family. That behavior led fans to turn her name into a verb (“Grazered”). The mighty mom is so beloved, even her “Grazerette” babies are famous among the Explore.org live cam-watching community.
— explore.org (@exploreorg) October 9, 2023
This season, 128 was solo for the first time in years. Still “she maintained a high level of dominance, even though she wasn’t protecting her cubs,” said Mike Fitz, the Explore.org naturalist who started the competition in 2014. “I think other bears remembered her ferocity, and they deferred to her throughout much of the summer.”
And despite being smaller than Chunk, “she’s a gutsy bear and I think I think her story won out,” Boak said. “And I think girl power won out.”
For the humans who celebrate, it’s been a Fat Bear Week to remember.The first plot twist of the tournament was the Friday ousting of four-time FBW winner 480 “Otis,” the oldest and arguably most famous bear in the fray. Despite arriving (late) to the river all skin and bones, Otis transformed into a robust, hearty lad. And still, new mom 901 — last year’s runner-up — beat the four-time champ by more than double his votes.
Grizzled vet 480 “Otis” was ousted from the Fat Bear Week bracket on Friday. (Sophie Park for The Washington Post)
“I did think that matchup would be closer,” Fitz said. “I know a lot of Otis fans were lobbying pretty hard to sway the vote.”
The loss hit some fans harder than others.
“Otis you will always be King of Katmai,” one person wrote in the Facebook group “Simping for Otis – A Fat Bear Support Group.” “I love you.”
“Some people feel an emotional reaction when their bear wins or when their bear happens to lose because they care about the bear as an individual,” Fitz said. “My ultimate goal is to hope that they can they can put those feelings into action to further protect Bristol Bay and the brown bears and the salmon who call the area home.”
The next curveball came Saturday with the brutal defeat of reigning champion 747, who earned just 9,925 votes to Grazer’s 66,687. Boak chalked his staggering loss to the fact that he already looked large in his “before” photo. Arriving fat and staying fat isn’t as compelling of a sell as a starving-to-thriving narrative.
That left three legendary ladies in the 12-bear bracket — 901, 435 “Holly,” and 128 “Grazer” — with 32 “Chunk” rounding out the flab four. The results of those matchups were substantial. Both Grazer and Chunk won their spots in the championship round in landslide defeats.
If the competition was based on size alone, Chunk had the advantage going into the finals. Katmai regulars (the human ones) noted 32 is in his prime, and may be even larger than 747.
“32 Chunk had a great year,” Fitz said. “You can just look at his body size and tell that he ate a lot of fish.”
32 “Chunk” advanced to the Fat Bear Week finals this year. (Sophie Park for The Washington Post)
But on Tuesday, early results showed Grazer trouncing Chunk. The beloved mother kept that lead through the day and into the evening, sweeping the victory easily.
The win is a celebration of 128’s #Girlbossing paying off. While the rest of us were sleeping, Grazer spent her nights working overtime. She was spotted fishing in the dark via the park’s infrared cameras, sometimes alongside fellow Fat Bear Week fighter Otis.
“It’s an example of how bears can exploit opportunities when they find it,” Fitz said. “She’s using her senses, her skills and her abilities to adapt to find success at a time of the day when very few bears fish.”
A “before” photo of 128 “Grazer” taken on July 8. (N. Boak/NPS Photo)
The “after” shot of Grazer in all her fat glory, from Sept. 14. (F. Jimenez/NPS Photo)
Grazer could not be immediately reached for comment, as she is a wild animal living in a remote national park in Alaska. (However, ahead of the competition, The Washington Post did travel to Katmai to meet the contenders — and their fans — in person.)
Even before Fat Bear Tuesday, more than a million votes had been counted, shattering last year’s record. That’s despite the new cybersecurity details installed on the Explore.org Fat Bear Week page to prevent voter fraud. In 2022, a fan programmed a bot to cast 9,000 fraudulent votes for Holly.
The new winner gets nothing. “None of the bears have any idea of what’s going on with Fat Bear Week,” Fitz said. “They’re not given any rewards.”
The win does, however, signal that 128 and her fallen competition are well-positioned to survive hibernation. Not only can they stay in their dens snug as a bug in a rug all winter, they should emerge next spring with enough body mass in the bank to wait out the salmon run’s return to the river.
“They need those extra fat reserves to help fuel them through a time of year where there’s not a lot of food,” Fitz said.
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