There he was.
Just before 2 p.m. Alaska time on July 26 — the very same day 480 Otis emerged from hibernation in 2021 — fans spotted the park’s beloved brown bear on a live camera at Brooks Falls in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve.
This year, the grizzly bear seen holding a fresh salmon and trudging through the water was late to his usual hunting spot at Katmai. It’s not that Otis hit snooze on his alarm — you can blame climate change.
“The last time he showed up this late, salmon were also late, and the salmon were late this year as well,” said Candice Rusch, a spokesperson with Explore.org, the site that runs the 24/7 live cameras at Katmai National Park. “What we’ve been seeing in Alaska is that the salmon run has been trending later into July, which means for bears like Otis waiting longer to eat that salmon.”
Wild bears like Otis are supposed to return to the salmon run in late June, not July, but rising temperatures and overfishing are in part delaying the arrival of the salmon, Rusch said. This puts the bears in a time crunch, having to eat food in less than the usual six months they’d have to take bulk up before winter.
“Things like rising ocean temperatures, overfishing, all of these things that are going to affect our marine life, are going to affect bears like Otis and all of the bears at Katmai National Park pretty directly,” Rusch said.
What makes the situation more critical is that Alaska’s Bristol Bay is the world’s last sockeye salmon run for bears like Otis, Rusch said, which she said makes it crucial to take action to conserve it. As ocean waters warm, less and less salmon are returning to open sea, which means there are fewer available to feed animals and humans. Those that do return to high sea are dying as marine heat waves driven by climate change continue to alter their ecosystem.
Bears, which also eat sedges and clams, migrate to open meadows in spring and early summer to feed and dig for food on the nearby mud flats. They eat salmon from streams during the last part of the summer and through fall, according to the National Park Service.
480 Otis is particularly famous thanks to the increasingly popular Fat Bear Week competition. Created in 2014, Fat Bear Week is March Madness meets Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest, but for bears. At the end of the summer, Katmai National Park staff and Explore.org pit 12 park bears against each other online in a single-elimination bracket tournament.
The internet is presented with before and after photos of the contenders, showing bears right after they’ve emerged from hibernation, often very lean, then again in the final weeks before they hibernate again, by then much fatter. Fans then vote on which bear has the more impressive weight gain until one bear takes the title of Fattest Bear on Fat Bear Tuesday. Otis is a regular fan favorite of the competition, and has won the crown four times, including in 2021. At roughly 27 years old, he’s also one of the oldest bears at the park.
“A bear that’s around 30 years of age is approaching what would be the equivalent of a 100-year-old person,” said Mike Fitz, Fat Bear Week creator and Explore.org resident naturalist. “Most bears don’t have the fortune of living that long.”
Since the park’s so-called live “bear cams” were turned on June 16, fans had been waiting for Otis to make an appearance. As weeks passed and more prominent fixtures were spotted, like last year’s semifinalist 435 Holly, fans were starting to worry that Otis may not return.
On the afternoon of July 26, just a few hours before he was spotted, Rachel Wanamaker noted Otis’s absence in the Fat Bear Week Bracket Tournament Facebook group, the most prominent online gathering place for fans of the park’s bears.
There were reasonable explanations, Wanamaker said, like the lower than normal salmon count, or the fact that he could be elsewhere in the park. But the live camera chats were starting to fill up with worries, prayers and tributes to the bear.
“What he was doing in the meantime, I don’t know,” Fitz said. “It looks pretty obvious to me that he wasn’t fishing somewhere else because he’s pretty thin.”
Then, as if on cue, the former champ appeared. Pure elation followed, with dozens of posts and hundreds of comments. “I was prepared mentally for him to not show up but the sheer joy in the first few sighting posts were overwhelming,” one group member wrote. “Long live Otis, King of Brooks Falls.”
“For a lot of people, it was quite joyous for them to see him return,” Fitz said.
While fans may have been unsure, Fitz wasn’t surprised to see the bear’s return. Also true to form, Otis reemerged emaciated with vertebrae sticking out of his back and hip bones protruding. Fitz said it’s likely that Otis emerged from his den and spent time in another part of the park before heading to Brooks Falls.
Bears start leaving their hibernation dens as early as March and as late as June, Fitz said.
“He showed up this year extraordinarily skinny,” Rusch also noted.
Within 30 minutes of his return to the river, Otis was catching fish. Fitz said that’s part of what fans love about him. “We’ve seen in the past that he is adaptable and he’s a survivor,” Fitz said. “People can really relate to his work ethic and his ability to make a living despite the challenges that he continues to face.”
If we want to continue watching Otis and other bears return to Katmai National Park every year, it’s critical to protect the environment and its marine life, Rusch said.
“Climate is one ecosystem, not just Alaska,” Rusch said. “It’s the whole world that it’s tied together in this problem.”