After the rains battered the creeks of Bhitarkanika through the night the overcast sky changed its colour. The deep grey clouds had moved out and the sky became visible with its traces of azure blue over the rivers and creeks. The cloudscape changed to take on the form of Cumuliform clouds hanging loosely over the mangrove forest.
The sun had lit up the greenery draped, river washed land mass that spread itself over six hundred seventy-two square kilometres.
We drove over the road that bordered the Brahmani river and reached the checkpoint Khola to start our water-bound journey. Few pamphlets were being distributed by an enthusiastic forest official which spoke about the extent of the area. We picked one for reference. After parking, we finished the paperwork of a wildlife sanctuary and boarded the steamer.
A rickety makeshift pathway formed the jetty with worn out bamboo rails to grab. We jumped one boat to get into ours balancing over a loose wooden plank. The infrastructure exists in its basic form leaving no room for any errors.
It was a weather-beaten mechanised boat which stretched about forty metres with an in-line six-cylinder 2.5-litre diesel engine, sitting in the midsection below with one propeller for propulsion. Well, good enough to churn out the needed torque to cut through the water. Hardly anybody sat within the hull as the better view of the passing banks was possible if one sat atop the cabin which was moderately furnished. With a burst of dark smoke belching out of the exhaust, the boat went midstream and cut through the brownish tinted creek water.
Passengers were elated as they all looked forward to the adventurous boat ride; however, had to settle with the meagre creature comforts that were on offer.
Every eye was scanning the branches, trees, banks to see a crocodile.
None of the boats had any rescue materials to reckon with. If anything happened, it was the mother nature who would have protected us. We let go of that thought. The rhythmic beat of the powerful diesel reverberated over the narrow creek as the boat chugged forward.
We were introduced to our young friend, Samar who happened to be our vessel skipper and guide.
We requested him to cut the engine in case we came across any large crocodile. The mangrove had grown low, very close to the water and seemed to have popped up from the water. These trees hung outwards over the river and their roots where they touched the mud invariably were the hiding places for the crocodiles. They bivouacked within the trees and waited in ambush to pounce upon an unsuspecting prey.
Our boat had picked up speed and the water surface in front was calm and movement of any kind could have been detected; however, none was visible within the first eight minutes of travel.
Love for wildlife is such that even a rustle of a falling leaf makes you sit and gaze at it.
The look of the river depended largely on the mangrove tree formation. Once they stood like a wall of a deep forest with a curtain of big trees standing amidst the low mangroves. Most interesting was the presence of dead trees long gone in the middle of the creek or the river standing like a skeletal statue with all its branches spread out like limbs trying to tell its story of the glory it had seen.
The river water flowing around these dead trees created a ripple of current. At times it did look quite eerie. Our skipper Samar kept his eyes focused on the crevices within the long rows of trees and jungle for a view of these prehistoric creatures which still had the edge when it came to predators.
The steamer flowed through the deep waters of the creek and rounded a turn and we were able to see a long spread of green grass which went as far as we could see. There were a couple of huts that sprouted right of the water. Wondering who could stay in these huts with such water creatures all around.
Even with the sun burning above us bathing the forest around, they were so dense that a distinct feeling of darkness was felt. Large trees cast their shadows over the turbid water.
It was becoming difficult to spot an animal. All the heads turned from one end to the other. There were sixty-two different varieties of mangrove that grew in these marshlands. The actual landscape can only be ascertained once the water receded during the low tide.
The narrow creek suddenly took a left turn and the landscape changed completely. This creek broadened itself several folds and the trees that lined flung out far away in the distance. No mistaking that the water was deep where we were sailing. Samar at the helm of the boat slowed the boat down as the engine note changed to a soft rumble.
Did he sense anything?
The boat reduced its speed further and we neared the starboard quarter and then Samar pointed his finger. A croc. At first, I was not able to see anything and then I saw it. A huge saltwater crocodile. The thorny skin which was a combination of blue and deep green looked uneven throughout.
The hooded yellow coloured eyes were all that came out with its long snout protruding forwards. The lethal teeth were well tucked underneath the water surface.
We were seeing one of nature’s deadliest killing machine effortlessly gliding away with hardly any ripple on the water surface. It looked like a tank with its vast array of skyward missiles, ready to attack in split second. These teeth like projections bring the drag coefficient down when the crocodile travels through the water.
A crocodile can easily pick up fifteen to eighteen kilometres an hour in water.
Few facts we learned from Samar were awe inspiring. An estuarine crocodile, like this, can pack in enormous strength. They can grow as big as twenty-three feet, weigh about one to eleven hundred pounds or five hundred kilograms. When it bites, the force with which it slam shuts its jaws can climb nearly to two thousand pounds or close to nine hundred ten kilograms per square inch. We could well imagine why a deer or a buffalo can be slashed to pieces by these monsters.
They are known to attack anything that floats or moves in the water. At first, it grabs, and then it revolves the prey in the water to break the bones and then takes it below the water surface to drown and eat.
This area became suddenly busy with crocodiles. We had reached the big river, Baitharani, the official playground of the powerful predators. Samar almost slammed the brakes by reversing the engine. He had spotted another crocodile, it was enormous, resting underneath the rows of mangrove trees on the muddy bank. It looked fearsome.
Estuarine crocs have a heart with four chambers which pump blood to the jaws and tail for attack and propulsion purposes. The tail acts like a propeller working sideways which helps the beast to surge ahead. A croc has a brain cortex which nestles within the two eyes. It is very intelligent and has super cognitive power. Samar recounted a real story of Bhitarkanika. Once a team was camping around the outskirts of the town near the river Brahmani for few days. A crocodile had observed the team’s activities from the river for days to learn the routine the team followed. It spotted a time around 12 pm when there’s no one around and one of the team came out to dry her clothes.
On a bleak, cloudy day it stealthily approached from behind, attacked and took her away. Only one severed arm with her bracelet was found caught in the bushes which told the team that she was gone forever. A crocodile can stay afloat by pushing air into its lungs and it can displace the liver backwards to make room for the lungs to grow big so that it can hold more air.
The boat chugged along to the next stop at Dangamal, the crocodile breeding centre where we were able to see caged crocodiles.
A long walkway with few government houses and a museum constituted the breeding centre.
The jaws when closed, the look was no less lethal. The incisors on either side remain protruded. When it bites, these teeth pierce the flesh and rips them apart while the other teeth hold the prey when it rolls on its axis called the death roll.
We saw a dead crocodile which was once the biggest in this area. It was twenty-five feet long and the weight was about fifteen hundred pounds. It was huge. The mere sight of it would make its prey dead.
We also found living quarters well furnished which can be reserved with the help of Orissa tourism. The place was serene and quiet with only the sound of the leaves brushing each other in the breeze.
We came across a rarely seen white crocodile called “Gauri” which was born of eggs found at Khalibhanjo. It was feeding crabs provided by the centre caretakers.
After a fascinating display of crocodiles, we set off towards a place called “Bagagahana”, where there was a watchtower to see the migratory birds that flock in large numbers mainly between the period, November through February.
On our way to the watchtower, we came across a series of crocodiles, basking in the sun with its jaws wide open.
We climbed the watchtower and only found loads of wood storks screaming and flapping as they flew from one tree to another. These trees and the thick mangrove jungle become a central hub for the migratory birds in the winter.
The boat had turned now and we headed back to Khola from where we had started. My skin was almost looking like that of a young crocodile after getting basked in the sun. The excitement and eagerness were so intense that one forgets to drink water and I was feeling terribly dehydrated.
We had sailed away for more than five hours under the relentless sun.
As we swept past a narrow creek, a water monitor was on the prowl for fishes or animals which it could devour for its midday meal.
Our immensely exciting creek and river expedition came to an end as the boat made its way through the creek and reached us at the checkpoint.
As we were about to get off the boat, I spotted another crocodile which sailed very close to the boat. We were hardly ten feet away and it maintained the boat’s pace throughout before it vanished in the murky waters.
As we drove back to our camp, Bhitarkanika had its share of surprises all around. We came across large water bodies away from the river which was the shrimp breeding centres. They also had ponds dedicated to flowers which they grew for economic purposes.
We asked few locals about their life with the crocodiles. What we learned gave us the creeps. In some family or the other, they have lost family members to the crocodiles. Awareness has come the hard way to the inhabitants.
At present, there were about fifteen to seventeen hundred of estuarine crocodiles swimming about the two big rivers and the creeks.
We drove about fifteen kilometres towards the mouth of the Brahmani river where the river touches the Bay of Bengal. There’s a beach called Ekakula which is famous for Olive Ridley turtles that visit every year to lay eggs.
We were denied its presence as it was the start of the summer months in India. These visitors come in during the winter months.
We visited briefly the adjoining fishermen port where the boats moored and the day’s catch was getting unloaded for distribution to the faraway cities. They will be savoured with garnishes in many restaurants that we visit and order a sea fish dish.
This is the hub from where it all starts before we see it lavishly decorated on the plate.
We came back for a late snack to our camp. The day’s excursion was simply fascinating. We had seen the life of fishermen, the deadly crocodiles and their breeding grounds.
For a city dweller like us, these moments of memory are treasured with exquisite care.
It was about four in the afternoon and we were ready for our way back to Calcutta.
We drove past the Brahmani river once again and started our bouncy journey as the car negotiated rocky outcrops and craters beside the river which was about ten feet away.
Bhitarkanika is incredibly beautiful and equally deadly. Visitors tend to get carried away by its untouched charm. Any slip and nature will not be merciful.
The enormity of the place sets in late. Nature has its own way of showing gentleness or being fierce. It was an educational trip for us and will certainly come back to breathe in the fishy smell, and to see the estuarine crocodiles wading through the calmness of Brahmani and Baitarani rivers.