It feels only a little different from the ocean. Reminding us that we are at Satapada on the Chilika or Chilka Lake in Orissa/Odisha are slivers of brown and green land that appear intermittently on the horizon and the comparative mildness of waves rocking our boat. Otherwise, the vast expanse of water that seems to go on and on might fool one into thinking it’s the sea.
(THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED FOR COST RELATED INFORMATION ON BOAT RIDES IN CHILIKA LAKE)
Our family is on vacation in Orissa and we have made our way from Puri to visit India’s largest brackish water lake. The scenery along the route has been spectacular. I’ve never seen as many lily ponds in my life as I see on this trip.
The OTDC boat (Orissa Tourism Development Corporation) boat we rent is being steered by an elderly, well-baked (the sun is harsh here) boatman. As we pass by, cows mindlessly munch grass on a patch of land jutting out into the water and herons keep busy with their universal routine of putting one stick-like leg awkwardly in front of the other, eyes intently scanning the water for fish.
On another island is a makeshift shelter for fishermen – a small hut on stilts with a blue polythene sheet covering the thatched roof. A kite comes to rest nearby, having been chased by crows greedy for morsels of whatever it has in its beak.
As we move in further, the wind whooshes through our boat, making our hats flutter and the cloth canopy flap furiously, as if ticking off the perpetrator. Light on the water turns the world around us into a mass of glittering, rippling silver.
The boat continues fighting its way through the humongous expanse of greyish-brown water, noises from its revving Honda engine and those of other boats, disturbing the peace. When it reaches a certain spot, the boatman cuts the engine and the waves make gentle, lapping sounds as they hit the bobbing boat.
Six adults and three children strain their eyes looking for what we came to see. The kids excitedly point at anything grey. The water and light play tricks on our minds, making us visualize what isn’t there. Then the boatman points in one direction and smiles break out on our faces. “Look, the fin” says one kid breathlessly. “But they don’t have pointy noses”, says another.
The Irrawaddy dolphins come surging through the water, causing it to split and roil.
These shy mammals are found in the coastal regions of South and Southeast Asia. There were only 144 Irrawaddy dolphins in Chilika Lake in 2014. Listed as an endangered species here, they are critically endangered in the Mekong river, where they live in a 118 mile stretch between Cambodia and Lao PDR.
The adults try filming the shiny, snub-nosed creatures – quite a frustrating endeavor given the dolphins’ speed and their knack of going underwater just when the camera focuses well enough to show a clear picture.
After taking a few shots, we decide to just watch two families frolicking around. They dive and reappear in spots we aren’t able to predict. The boatman cruises closer and we can now hear the dolphins snorting, their blowholes making fountains of mist as they surface to breathe. It’s simply fascinating.
We know they are only behaving as they always do – there is nothing unusual in a dolphin swimming. But the thrill of being so close to the creature in its natural habitat and the fact that the sighting lasts for a short while, makes it feel like a special encounter.
Watch the dolphins in action here –
If you’re looking for suggestions on which PLACES TO VISIT AND WHAT TO SEE IN ODISHA PLUS TRAVEL TIPS just click here
FACTS ON CHILIKA/CHILKA LAKE –
- Chilika or Chilka Lake is Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon. With an area of over 1,100 square km, it is spread over the Puri, Khurda and Ganjam districts of Odisha state
- The lagoon has three rivers as water sources – Daya, Bhargavi and Malaguni. The Bay of Bengal meets the lagoon at the mouth of the Daya River, the two separated by a 60 km long narrow strip of marshy islands and sand-flats
- Islands in Chilika are Parikud, Nalabana, Sanakuda, Berahpura, Tampara, Kalijai Hill, Kanthapantha, Badakuda, Phulbari, Honeymoon and Nuapara
- The lake is a wintering ground for migratory birds and one of the most important wetlands in India
- The Nalabana Island (Forest of Reeds) in the lagoon is a bird sanctuary. A core area of about 9 square kms attracts around 400,000 waterfowls of different species. Often underwater, the island gradually emerges with the outset of summer
- Birds from as far as the Caspian Sea, Lake Baikal, Aral Sea, Kirghiz steppes of Mongolia, Central and SouthEast Asia, Ladakh and Himalayas visit
- Located on another island is the Kalijai Temple, a temple dedicated to Goddess Kali. Pilgrims and tourists flock here during the Indian festival of Makar Sankranti
- Mangalajodi is home to a successful wildlife conservation project, supported by local residents who were once poachers
- Balugaon and Rambha are major towns serving as entry points for the lake
- Best time to visit for bird watching is November-end to February.
HOW TO GET TO/REACH CHILIKA or CHILKA LAKE
Airport – Bhubaneshwar
Railhead – Balugaon on the Howrah-Chennai line.
Bus stop – Balugaon and Rambha are major towns serving as entry points to Chilika.
1) Get off at Balugaon for Barkul. Hire a taxi/auto-rickshaw from here to reach Barkul. Then hire a boat to visit Satapada/islands
2) Get off at Keshpur for Rambha. Hire a taxi/auto-rickshaw to Rambha, then a boat from here for Satapada/islands
You can also opt for a day tour from Puri organised by the Orissa Tourism Development Corporation (OTDC) The link is here
Car/Taxi – Take the NH5, then drive down to Satapada
TIPS TO MAKE THE CHILIKA/CHILKA LAKE EXPERIENCE BETTER
- Odisha/Orissa is very hot at other times, so the best season to visit the state is end-October to mid-March. Don’t go during June to September – it’s monsoon.
- There are private boat operators before the OTDC Yatri Niwas. You will need to haggle with them over rates. Make sure that the boat you hire is covered – it gets very hot even in the morning
- There is an OTDC Yatri Niwas (guest house) at Satapada where you can hire boats for dolphin watching/going to the islands
- OTDC boats are best suited for larger groups and have quieter engines. We took one, not wanting to disturb the dolphins. But with private, louder boats hovering around at the sighting spot, it didn’t help that cause much. Our ears were spared of the phut-phutting sound of those diesel motors for the remaining time though
- Apply enough sunscreen if you plan to visit any of the islands/beach. Wear hats and sun goggles, unless it is cloudy
- After the dolphin spotting, you can take the boat to the sand bar that separates the Bay of Bengal from the lagoon. It takes over an hour from the jetty at Satapada to the sand bar
- If you are vegetarian, order lunch at the OTDC Yatri Nivas before you begin the boat ride – the food is not the tastiest but it’s best to have something when you return after the 3-4 hour trip
- If you are non-vegetarian, you can have freshly cooked fish/mussels/crabs on the sand bar
- You can also buy coconut water and tea too
- Do not buy pearls that the vendors would have supposedly just extracted from molluscs lying in vessels at the sand bar. They would, in all probability, be fake
BOAT RIDES IN CHILIKA LAKE
OTDC offers boat rides to Kalijai from Barkul and to the sea mouth from Satapada. For Kalijai, the rate on the OTDC website currently shows 80 rupees per person and for the sea mouth and back, 160 rupees per person. Both need a minimum of 8 people for the ride to operate. If you have a smaller group, you can hire the entire boat and pay for 8 people.
The prices mentioned here might change, so it’s best to call the OTDC office and check before you reach.You can call this no. 1800 208 1414 (Toll free) or check other numbers at this link http://www.otdc.in/boating.htm .
ACCOMODATION NEAR CHILIKA LAKE
Your best option is the OTDC Panthnivas at Rambha. Though I haven’t personally visited, the reviews on TripAdvisor seem pretty good. Here is the link to the reviews
Here is a link for looking up the OTDC guest house/hotel tariff
The Pantha Nivas at Barkul or Barkula is reputed to have scenic views as well. However, I can’t vouch for it since I haven’t seen it.
And here is a link to the TripAdvisor reviews (old ones though).
While one can stay at the Yatri Nivas, Satapada, virtually right on the lake, it didn’t seem like a very pleasant option when I visited in November, 2014. The place gets quite deserted once the sun has set and the restaurant serves just about edible food.
Here is the link to TripAdvisor reviews