The brown bear cams at Katmai National Park and Preserve have returned from hibernation.
Eight solar- and wind-powered cameras, operated by volunteers from Explore.org, began streaming live footage from Brooks Camp on the solstice and will continue through the last run of salmon this fall. The multi-camera feed will stream 24/7 from the park, about 290 air miles southwest of Anchorage.
Viewers from around the world have made the bears celebrities, with fan pages dedicated to watching the bears fatten up in preparation for winter. The most popular cameras are pointed at Brooks Falls, where bears fish and jostle for position, sockeye salmon occasionally leaping directly into their waiting jaws.
Last year, those cameras made up half of the 9,369,380 total unique page views of the bear cams. Another 13,000 actual visitors came to Katmai’s Brooks Camp to watch the bears live.
Approximately 2,000 bears live in the park, with some areas offering the highest densities of bears ever documented. Along the 1.5-mile Brooks River, 80 individual brown bears and 20 cubs have been identified.
Eating up to 40 salmon a day, some bears fish from atop Brooks Falls. Others try their luck in a favorite pool of whirling water directly below the falls known as “the jacuzzi.”
For a sockeye’s perspective, another camera is submerged downstream from the falls, just short of the mouth of the Brooks River at Naknek Lake. Facing downstream, fish can be seen swimming upriver past the camera, toward their natal origins to spawn.
Last year, Katmai and Explore, a nonprofit partner of the park, hosted the fourth annual Fat Bear Week contest. By posting before-and-after photos of the brown bears, fans then voted on which bear they thought had bulked up the most over the season. “Beadnose,” officially known as Bear 409, won the contest for a second time. (Something to look forward to: There will be another Fat Bear Week contest this year.)
Although they are certainly the stars of Katmai’s webcams, brown bears aren’t the only characters in the cast. Seagulls and black-billed magpies can be seen scrounging around river. At night, or at least once the sun rests low beyond the horizon, bats can be seen swooping above the river for their own breakfast.
In past seasons, lynx and river otters have made appearances at the river. Already this year, there have been two wolf sightings in other portions of the park, according to Karen Garthwait, a ranger and acting interpretation program manager at Katmai, and there’s a chance viewers could spot wolves on the live stream.
For fans interested in getting to know the famous bears on an individual level, the park offers a downloadable "Bears of Brooks River” book, which profiles some of the more popular bears seen on the live streams. A 2019 edition of the book will be out later this season.
Viewers can learn more about the individual bears from the steady flow of comments on Explore’s bear cam webpage. Volunteers and fans in the comments section have already identified a few well-known bears this year, including “Grazer,” “Popeye” and “Holly." According to comments from close observers, this year Holly emancipated her cubs, who will spend their first season foraging for their own meals.
The purpose of the webcams isn’t just to cast the bears and magpies in television-like entertainment, Garthwait said.
“Hopefully these viewers are tuning in to the conservation message at the heart of it," she said.