October I week
We arrived in PURI ( Orissa/ Odisha) in the most inclement weather. Depression in the Bay of Bengal had caused the skies over Jagannath's citadel to go grey, meloncholic and vengeful. It kept pouring buckets, turning the town into a total mess ( not that it was a showpiece of civic beauty to begin with !). Would the all merciful Krishna and His Siblings give us a chance to realise our cherished plan of meeting Lake Chilika's most famous denizens : The Irrawaddy Dolphins ?
Hoping to beat the clouds, we set out very early from the beach- resort in Puri, on NH-203 A for the 50km journey . A very pleasant drive, with lovely, lush vistas of glistening emerald on both sides. But as we neared destination , the wind started howling and rain fell in thin showers.
At the boat jetty, the little shacks selling snacks had lowered polythene sheets over the fronts, while the ticketing agent in the newly constructed counter, pouted discouragingly. He opined it was not the best day to have a darshan of the treasured creatures. ' They never come out in such weather.' Nevertheless, he pushed for sale, offering us a variety of boats , durations and rates to choose from. All attractions offered were neatly itemised on the newly painted signboard and on the ticket. So what if we could not see Item No. 5 : Dolphin, he tempted us, we could always enjoy 1. Sand Bar, 2. Sea Face, 3. Little Birds 4. Red Crab and 6. Ancient Temple.
Glimpsing wildlife of anykind is always chancy. Even when the wardens promise good prospects, disappointments abound. So, what to expect when absolutely no hope is extended ? But, beating a retreat was not an option .
Clutching our umbrellas and shawls, we took the Rs.1200 package upon a whim and got into a rude motor boat with a blue awning. The wiry boatman( smartly togged up in raincoat,cap and rubber boots ) baled out the pools of water collected on floor of the boat and whirred into the choppy, slate gray waters of the sea-like Chilika with a cheerful cry of " Hooooiiii ! "
CHILIKA Lake is the largest coastal lagoon in India, second largest in the world, fed by the rivers Daya,Mallaguni, Bhargavi and Nuni . Its an estuarine assembly of marine , brackish and fresh water eco-systems sheltering diverse varieties of fauna and flora and the largest winter-home of migratory birds in the subcontinent . It was the First Indian site included in the RAMSAR Convention * . Spread over 1165 Sq. Kms. it is the lifeline of thousands of fishermen, living along its shore and numerous islands (some with funny names like Breakfast Island, Honeymoon Island etc).
The Southern sector of the lake, towards the outer channel , is the habitat of the Irrawaddy Dolphins, now a Critically Endagered species with less than 150 individuals living here. A few families inhabit the Sundarbans.
SATAPARA /SATPADA is the base , designated by Chilika Development Authority , from which Dolphin watching safaris can be undertaken. Since the creatures are protected, many guidelines are to be followed. Only five tourist boats are allowed to ply the water at any given time and none can get within 50 meters of a "sighting". As soon as a dolphin is sighted, the motor of the boat is to be switched off and so too, the human voice. Chasing, feeding or poaching the animals can land you in jail and leave you Rs.25,000 poorer.
The IRRAWADDY DOLPHIN ( orcaella brevirostris) is characterised by a rounded head and the distinct lack of the nose or snout commonly associated with dolphins. It is small, grey and shy. There are local Folk Tales of how the forefathers could communicate with these "Khera"and get their help in netting shoals of fish. As wages for herding the fish towards the net, the aquatic guides got to feast on the pieces discarded by the fisher. Symbiotic existence, now defunct.
A short while after leaving the jetty, the boatman pointed to a far off point where the lake and sea seemed to merge and declared " Sea Face !" Almost as if to say, " Score it off the list on your ticket. One down, four more to go !"
Some 30 minutes into the ride, the boat pulled up at one of the innumerable, minsicule islands scattered in the lagoon and beckoned to a grinning lad standing on that 12ft. strip of slippery green. The boy jumped in holding aloft an old 2liter mineral water bottle. " Red Crab !" announced the boatman with a flourish and we caught sight of two huge coral coloured crabs brawling inside their P.E.T. prison. Ingenious mobile aquarium ! After the mandatory photoshoot session, the lad was dumped back onto the island and we chugged forth. Item 3 :Red Crab: check !
The drizzle, though steady, no longer bothered us, as we were soaked anyway. So we decided to enjoy the chilly breeze and the view of mangroves in the horizon. Soon, however, the boat stopped at another kerchief sized island . Two grinning youths waiting in a country boat, jumped in with a pail and our pilot , ever the suave M.C., announced " Fresh Water Pearls !" Now, this was not on the list and clearly an "Added Attraction !" The youths pulled out pairs of oysters from the pail and started knocking them together to break them open. And from the gooey mass of mollusc flesh within, they dug out smooth, round glowing pearls ! One after the other, they cracked open and, after a hiccup of suspense ( is there or isn't there?) out fell pinkish, creamish and greyish pearls ! Also the occassional black ! We had a go at this mesmerising harvest too, having made sure beforehand that the creatures were already dead. After the whole pail was ransacked ( only three out of 20 oysters were pearl-less), our Pilot got down to business: Rs50 for each pearl, Rs.200 for the rare black ones. And no compulsion to buy. But how could anyone decline ! A few seconds of bargaining brought the prices down to 20 and 50 respectively and we all soon had our booty, the fruit of our own labour ! Though the pilot insisted that the youths had dived in and netted those wild oysters, it was plain that they had slyly pilfered them from some pearl culturing farm nearby, most probably a place they worked in.
This sideshow has eaten into our time , so we hurried off , and at the next patch of land visible in the water, we were shown the promised "Little Birds". Half a dozen herons ? Oh well, why disappont the good man ? Trying not to think of Ranganathittoo, we dutifully ooh-ed and aah-ed in appreciation and clicked pictures.
We sped past circles of wooden stakes jutting out of water ( probably used for tying nets), past two other boats whose pilots exchanged intelligence with ours on where the Khera could be, past islands , sandbars and minipatches of green......
The boat slowed down and I suddenly panicked, imagining a dolphin proffered to our view in a plastic tub by yet another grinning lad. But,no.This was for real. This was it ! Dolphins ! Two of them, tumbling just under the water surface. Now we saw them, now we din't. The motor was cut silent and our good man started miming frantically, showing the spot where another one was lurking. We tripped over each other, trying to catch at least one full-body view of the mercurial creatures. But they never fully sprang out or raised their heads. Very quickly, they ended their show and vanished altogether. It was thrilling !
The boatman waited reverentially for a few more minutes to make sure they had gained a distance, then revved up his motor. He was as excited as we were and boasted to the pilot of another boat passing us about our goodluck.
Before our excitement had died down, the boat stopped again, this time by another islet from where yet another grinning lad invaded our vessel, holding yet another pail. There were some geenish masses of what looked like sedimented mussels and clams. He started hammering them with a piece of wood and after they had crumbled, extracted two orange coloured beads . " Gem. Mani !" He announced . Was he trying to sell us corals ? Neatly cut and polished hemispherical beads, ready to be set in gold ! Fresh and Natural from the seabed, did he say ? C'mon ! it was so patently fake, we had to shoo the boy off and instruct the overenthusiastic pilot to turn back. We had to return to Puri before the ever threatening clouds released a torrent.
The boat turned and headed to an island , overgrown with gnarled trees , where the last promised item : "Ancient Temple ", was situated. The Island was called Manikpur and the temple : Babhakundeshwar. The place looked eerie, deserted and very, very ancient. The beautiful temple was partly buried in sand, with only the front side cleared. On one niche on the outer wall was a sculpted goddess, her face fully weather worn and blunt........resembling the face of the Irrawaddy dolphin !
* RAMSAR :The Convention on Wetlands is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. It was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 and came into force in 1975, and it is the only global environmental treaty that deals with a particular ecosystem. The Convention's member countries cover all geographic regions of the planet. )
All Photographs by : Shravan, my nephew.
The following one is from the CDA Brochure: