- Bhitarkanika at a glance
- Boating in Bhitarkanika
- The Mangroves
- Crocs in the wild
- Other animals at the National Park
- Hatchery and Research Enclosures
- Gori – the white croc
- Nature Trails
- Other places nearby Bhitarkanika – Habalikhati Beach
- Conclusion of Tour
Bhitarkanika at a glance
Bhitarkanika is an estuary in the delta of Brahmani and Baitarani rivers, leading into the Bay of Bengal. This ecologically important wetland was declared as a wildlife sanctuary and a National Park in 1975, primarily dedicated to reptiles like the Salt Water Crocodiles and Olive Ridley Turtles (At Gahirmatha Beach end of Bhitarkanika). The area spreads over 672 Sq KM comprising of 25 forest blocks and more than 400 villages. A scenic wonderland combined with abundant wildlife is how I would describe it in one line.
How to Reach
By Road : Bhitarkanika is situated in Kendrapara district of Odisha and is well connected by road to rest of Odisha. It is 167 KM from Bhubaneswar and 146 KM from Cuttack. Self Drive or Cab rentals are the most Popular modes of transport here.
Interstate busses on the Bhubaneswar Kolkata route crosses through Jajpur and Bhadrak, hence one can hop off in any of these two locations and take a local bus to Bhitarkanika.
By Train : There are no railway stations in Bhitarkanika hence one has to reach Bhadrak or Jajpur and take a local bus to Bhitarkanika.
By Flight: The Nearest Airport is Bhubaneswar International Airport (BBI). Upon reaching Bhubaneswar one has to either take a cab or bus.
Where to Stay
A typical Bhitarkanika tour is a day trip from Bhubaneswar hence not many accomodation options are available in the area as most tourists start from Bhubaneswar early in the morning and reach back by night. There are however some eco resorts in Bhitarkanika which has recently come up and are worth exploring. Booking can be done for Bhitarkanika from the below websites:
OTDC Aranya Niwas(erstwhile Panthanivas) : 94371 72787 / 8144489608 / email@example.com
Bhitarkanika Forest Guesthouse Booking
Boating in Bhitarkanika
An early morning drive of around 3 hours took us from Bhubaneswar to Bhitarkanika through some really beautiful places in rural Odisha. While embarking upon a tour of Bhitarkanika, I knew that the only viable way to explore the creaks and narrow mangrove marshes is by boat. Mentally I had prepared myself to board small motorised boats, similar to the ones I rode in Poovar, Kerala.
Once we reached Khola, the entry point of Bhitarkanika, I was pleasantly surprised by all the arrangements. The place was neat and clean with really good signage to guide tourists. The boats were nothing like I had imagined though.
The boats here are large wooden vessels capable of hosting around 20 people at a time, not small at all. All of them have proper chairs to sit with a roof and bow on top. The roofs are sturdy enough, and tourists who wish to have an uninterrupted view, and are not scared of the sun, can choose to stay on the roof. It was high winter when I visited the park, hence being on the roof seemed like the smarter choice.
Booking a boat which can host 18 to 20 tourists costs Rs 3500 to Rs 4000 for a round trip. Large groups usually book the whole boat for themselves, and smaller groups book on sharing basis. The ticket counter executives coordinate the sharing. The boats can be booked online as well through the official website.
We were a large group, hence had booked couple of boats. After a little bit of bickering most of us had settled into their seat of choosing, and it was time to start the ride. The crew, comprising of 2 moved to their respective positions and with one swift pull of a cranking belt, our boat was on its way, sailing through the brackish water surrounded by never ending rows of Mangrooves.
Mangroves are hardy shrubs and trees that thrive in salt water and have specialized adaptations so they can survive the volatile energies of inter tidal zones along marine coasts.Wikipedia
As we trundled along the murky waters of Baitarani, we could see rows and rows of Mangroves flanking the banks on both sides. It was so dense, that looking beyond the first row was simply impossible. These mangroves are the lynchpin of this ecosystem, holding together the silt and working as natural barrier to high tides.
Water here changes course with ocean tides and because of this phenomenon many times older Mangrooves end up in the middle of the water channel. Special attention needs to be taken while traversing such areas, hence most boat men here are locals, who ride through these waters on daily basis for all their needs.
While traversing the mangroves we saw a lot of birds like kingfisher, woodpeckers, geese, ducks, black ibis and darters. All of these before even getting the first glimpse of the Crocodiles, who are on top of the food chain at this National Park.
Crocs in the wild
15 minutes into the ride, we still hadn’t seen a full crocodile. At times we saw a few snouts peeking through the water with rest of the body submerged and completely invisible. Brackish water is always merky, proving to be the perfect hunting ground for Crocodiles, who specialise in wharf attack.
Just as we were loosing patience our guide pointed out towards the northern bank and shouted “kumbhira!”, meaning crocodile in Odia. As we turned our gaze in that direction we caught our first glimpse of a giant salt water Crocodile idling on the bank of the water body. I had seen crocs earlier in Zoos, but seeing one in the wild, is a surreal feeling that can’t be described in words.
It was huge, easily beyond 12 ft, and so still that it almost felt like it were a statue. Since crocodiles are cold blooded reptiles, they need to come out and bask in the sun to regulate their body temperature. Usually when the tides are low and the muddy banks are visible, these giants come out and lay there enjoying the sunlight. It’s the best time to catch a glimpse of these larger crocs.
In the crocodile world, estuarine or salt water crocodiles are known to be the largest and heaviest. One croc from Bhitarkanika had even set the Guinness record for being the largest at its time, measuring 23 ft.
There was a time when the number of crocodiles left in this park was just 95 due to unchecked poaching and hunting. Since it’s been declared a sanctuary, the crocodile populace here is flourishing, and it’s one of the most successful conservation efforts in the world.
As we went deeper and deeper into the sanctuary, we saw more and more crocs idling on the banks. Some were of modest size, but some were simply huge. It’s true that Bhitarkanika is a sanctuary for the Crocodiles but it doesn’t mean that they are the only animals present in this fragile ecosystem.
Other animals at the National Park
Besides the Crocodiles the National park is also home to large Indian Lizzard, Cobra, Python, rat-snakes, spotted deer, sambar, dolphins and over 215 bird species.
It was a beautiful winter day, the sun was out but the typical sweltering heat of Odisha was not there. The setting seemed perfect as the pleasant temperature had brought all the fauna out in the open for us to witness.
After spotting a few deers, fishing cats and lot many bird, our boat drifted towards a small bamboo jetty that led into the Forrest. A signboard a few feet away from the jetty read ‘Dangmal’ in big bold letters; we have reached our first stop.
In the year 1975, a Crocodile Conservation and Research Center was set up at Dangmal, which is within the National Park. Over time this particular place has started to be referred as ‘The Bhitarkanika National Park’, and it houses a rearing and rehabilitating facility for crocodiles, a small museum and hatchery.
Fresh off the boat we followed a nature trail towards the Interpretation Centre which is a good 500 meters away from the bank. On the way we were greeted by a monitor lizard of respectable size, which as soon as it saw us made a run for the bushes. Though nature is beautiful, it’s also scary at times. This was one such time, and we were just thankful the creature went away.
As we reached the gates of the research facility the first stop is the small museum on the right. This modest museum houses crocodile skulls, information panels on mangroves, reptiles, turtles and a six-meter-long specimen of a Crocodile.
Hatchery and Research Enclosures
Post the museum the next section is the hatchery and rearing center. Comprised of multiple smaller enclosures, this section holds Crocodile hatchlings segregated by age, starting with the smaller ones to the larger ones. Contrary to the adults, the little crocodiles were actively moving around, very unlike of crocs I must say.
Gradually making our way through the pathway we had now been walking alongside larger enclosures meant for large crocs who are either under medical supervision or too old to hunt on their own.
Gori – the white croc
The litteral translation of fair in Odia is Gori, so it seemed quite apt and lazy to have named an Albanian crocodile, the only one of its kind in Bhitarkanika, as Gori. Gori is so rare that she has been kept in an enclosure that opens up into a larger body of water, but doesn’t meet the open areas where other crocs roam. She is sort of in solitary confinement, since all attempts of mating have failed and she has also lost an eye over the years, making her vulnerable to attacks by other crocs.
Gori was our last stop at Dangmal, and we followed another nature trail towards our boat. Once the boat was on capacity, it started its journey towards another island which didn’t have any name. There are multiple such islands in Bhitarkanika where the boats drop you off and you can take a walk in the Forrest.
Once our boat got anchored off the bank and we had hopped off on a ghat, we started our walk among the mangroves. Though there are no crocodiles here on the island, but its home to many other reptiles including venomous cobras, hence we were asked to be watchful of our steps and surrounding.
We followed the trail until some distance and saw red crabs, some birds, monkeys and deer. We didn’t see any snakes, but we did see snake skin, which seemed to have been shed recently.
The most fascinating part of this trail were a group of outcroppings, those looked like pikes made of mud. I had no idea what these are, but they just looked amazing. On enquiring with our guide he explained that these are called “breathing roots”, those crop out of horizontal roots of Mangrooves . Usually when the roots of the plant are completely submerged, these roots help in gas exchange. Imagine them to be upside down version of Banyan tree’s root system.
Other places nearby Bhitarkanika – Habalikhati Beach
There are multiple beaches near Bhitarkanika but the most popular beach is Habalikhati Beach. It’s not a very popular tourist destination and hence has remained untouched by commercial activities. I haven’t been there, but the people who have say it’s an awesome beach destination.
Conclusion of Tour
As the sun started retreating, we were asked to move back to the boat and begin our return journey. The tide had started to rise, and many muddy banks which we had seen earlier were now completely submerged. We were still seeing some crocodiles, but most had now taken to the water, away from the gazing eyes of humans and the cameras. The day ends, boats get anchored, people fan out to their homes, leaving Bhitarkanika to its real inhabitants.