This morning I watched the sun rise over the Bay of Bengal. Hours earlier that same solar disc had lit the lighthouse at Cape Byron, Australia’s most easterly point of land. There, in that now distant place, the hour is probably around noon, the season high summer, the day hot and humid. I look to the sky-coloured water in the swimming pool below my apartment. Groups of coconut palms overhang its water. Clusters of heavy coconuts in ambush of hotel clients that may loiter below sit high above, patiently awaiting the right moment to fall. A staff masseur is already at his station by the pool’s edge, waiting quietly for the patronage of compliant Western bodies. Poolside furniture, its placement carefully balanced with the layout of the manicured flower gardens, sits empty, the night-time revellers of the night just gone not yet arisen. Alongside the pool is a notice, its words courteously advising that swimming is at one’s own risk, children are to swim under adult supervision only, diving is strictly prohibited, there is to be no spitting in the pool, only ‘proper’ swimming costumes are to be worn, users of the pool’s water are to first shower before entering, and to be aware of the risk of theft of valuables left unattended, etcetera. The sign, so thorough in its directives, didn’t say a word about ‘no water bombing’. Thus a reasoned assumption followed that this activity was allowed. Tempted as I was to demonstrate that art, once so vigorously performed by my school associates and I at the local suburban swimming baths, I had long ago made a personal pact that I would never enter chlorinated swimming pool water again; one childhood dose of a painful ear infection was enough, I did not need to risk a second bout. I was cured for life.
I take breakfast at the hotel, and find diversion and amusement in the presence of two small dragon lizards basking on the tree trunk outside. I am joined by blue-suited folk from North America. They are dressed like hospital theatre staff. One admits to being from Texas. I make some trite remark about the respective sizes of our two countries, and that my national flag has several stars more than that of her one-star state. She grimaces, though politely, but I discern she fears I am a serial conversationalist and that she may have the misfortune to inherit my mouth for the duration of the day. Her fears prove ungrounded, and I depart, for on this day I will visit the Chilika Lakes and if fate is willing I will spy an Irrawaddy dolphin. I am informed that a southward journey is inauspicious, but on this day I will trust to the gods of good fortune.
I wait in the foyer for my driver. There on a rack, its position strategic, are placed daily newspapers and current affairs magazines for the benefit of guests. In a copy of ‘India Today’, a January edition if I recall rightly, was reported an interview with Australia’s then Defence minister. Relationships had previously strained because of Australia’s reluctance to sell uranium to India, this owing to its concerns that India was not a signatory to nuclear safeguard treaties. Reports of racially motivated attacks on Indian students had not helped the relationship. In the article the minister discussed joint naval and anti-terrorist exercises by the forces of our respective sovereign states. Critically, for the diplomatic happiness of both countries, it is announced that Australia will now sell uranium ore to India, irrespective of whether or not India is a signatory to treaties safeguarding where the various by-products of uranium might later turn up. It seems we, and India, are good buddies again. I fold the magazine open at that particular page and place it back on the rack for all to see, but I do not purposely seek merit from my grass-roots ‘think globally, act locally’ effort, minuscule as it is, at improving cultural ties.
The drive south from Puri to Satpada township on Chilika Lake is about 50 kilometres in distance, the road connection being effected via National Highway Number 5. For the day trip I have acquired a new guide, in addition to my uncomplaining driver who has accompanied me from Bhubaneswar. The guide is eager to please and grins a lot, quite a lot actually. I cannot understand the words he speaks as they are encrypted by his thick accent, each sentence partnered by frequent gestures of his hands. In fairness his task of trying to understand me was probably far more difficult. I nod sufficiently to feign comprehension so as not to offend. I pass rice fields, brilliant green with newly planted rice clumps, then extensive areas given over to aquaculture, a small troop of langurs, and some water buffalos. Narrow raised causeways meander between water-inundated low-lying fields. On higher ground grow clusters of trees.
We arrive at the lakeside locality of Satpada. There I wait for an available boat, for I am told all have departed. I must wait until one returns. Outside the booking office I content myself with photographing the many species of butterflies that are attracted to yellow-flowering marigolds planted in a garden. The beautiful orange-winged Acraea violae is common. Most butterflies are members of the family Nymphalidae, but there are also several species of small, delicately-tailed ‘blues’, of the family Lycaenidae. There are no swallowtails or beetles in evidence, however, several bee-like Bembix wasps frequent the open blossoms, and there is a resplendent large and long-wasted wasp of the subfamily Eumeninae; this preoccupied with whatever food rewards the marigolds had to offer. All are unbothered by my presence.
At the lakeside jetty a sign proclaims that Chilika Lake is the largest brackish water lagoon in India, its size reaching to 1165 km2 in the rainy season, reducing to 906 km2 in the summer season. A second sign informs that no more than 5 tourist boats at a time are to approach dolphins, and that no boats are to approach closer than 50 metres. The guide informs me that a special boat is available for only Rs600 for one hour’s hire. For two hours hire he assures me that there is “a very good luck of seeing a dolphin”. If I hire for three hours we can go further into the lake, and there “it is certain we might see dolphins”. I argue that a boat ride was included in my tour fee, but all a-smile, my guide says this is not so, and besides, all boats are gone. Only the solitary ‘special’ boat remains at the jetty, and it is very good for Rs600 an hour. Today I have a different guide, but I get the feeling it is a re-run of my experience yesterday at Raghurajpur. Someone else has the steering wheel. I hire the ‘special’ boat for one hour, at Rs600 the equivalent of more than ten days worth of wages for a day labourer, 12 days or more worth of wages for a sari weaver back in Varanasi.
Numerous sharp-prowed wooden boats half full of Indians pass by as they race out into the lake in search of the Irrawaddy dolphin. My craft is covered in fibre glass, stubby and conspicuous, of the ‘guess who is the only foreigner’ kind. In an attempt to assume a guise of anonymity I invite the guide and my driver to join me, at no cost to them. They sit at the bow end, and enjoy the salt spray. Narrow-prowed boats continue race past, their occupants all waving. My seat is too low to afford me the response of slinking below, and out of sight.
To the centre of the lake’s grey turbid waters we press, the little engine growling away at a good 2-3 nautical knots an hour. Onwards we flew, undeterred by the choppy waves, the boat’s hull ill-designed for a water surface less than mirror smooth. Past low islands devoid of anything more substantial than occasional fishermen’s huts, heaps of furled blue nets, beached black-coloured fishing boats, their sterns and bows pointed in shape, and low cropped verdant grass. Near-shore are naked ranks of long wooden poles sunk into the shallow waters, their placement designed so as to snare fish, yet at this moment their nets unfitted. A lone osprey spring-boards from pole to pole, the bird always keeping ahead of my little craft and my camera lens. But I got to see a pod of four dolphins, and later two single sightings, the experience spoilt only by the frantic manoeuvring of the other tour boats, their long propeller shafts dangerously close to the dolphins as these sought sanctuary from the attention.
Chilika Lake is the second largest lagoon in the world. It receives the water of 52 rivers and rivulets, but its waters are quite shallow, the depth ranging from 0.4 metres to a little over 6 metres, give or take a bit. Its shores are the largest wintering ground for migratory birds in the Indian subcontinent and in winter the lake can be home to more than one million birds, of 225 species. Forty five percent of these are terrestrial species, 32 percent are waterfowl, and 23 percent are waders. The migratory species arrive from as far away as the Caspian Sea, Mongolia, south-east Asia, the Himalayas, and what is left of Lake Baikal in Russia. Chilika Lake is covered under the RAMSAR Convention, this being an international initiative to conserve wetlands of waterbird significance, the title taking its name from a town, Ramsar, in Iran. However, in addition to the profuse birdlife there are 267 species of fish, 29 species of shrimp and prawns, and 35 species of crabs.
One hundred and thirty two villages are set around its shores, the lake supporting a human population of more than 200,000. Known human occupation of the region dates from the 3rd millennium BCE, with some ancient texts indicating that the southern section of Chilika was a major maritime harbour during the time of the emperor Kheravela. The geographer Claudius Ptolemy, who lived during the first and second centuries of this era, referred to the port of Palur on the southern tip as a port from which ships departed to south-east Asia. The 10th Century text, the ‘Brahmanda Purana’, mentions Chilika Lake as an important centre for trade and commerce, and as a shelter for ships sailing to Java and elsewhere in Asia.
The lake is a shallow bar-built estuary with large areas of mudflats. The western and southern margins are fringed by the hills of the Eastern Ghats, and the eastern margin is a 60 km long barrier beach known as the Rejhansa. The lake has numerous islands, and its waters experience high turbidity due to a strong mixing with sediments of which there is a pronounced discharge into the lake. Threats to the lake include shrinkage of the water surface area, choking of the inlet channel due to shifting of the opening mouth to the sea, changes in salinity, proliferation of invasive freshwater species, and an overall loss of biodiversity. Rapid expansion of commercial aquaculture has significantly contributed to the decline of the lake’s fisheries and birdlife.
Chilika Lake is said to contain the highest population of Irrawaddy dolphins, Orcaella brevirostris, in the world, the lake population currently at about 135 individuals. The species is also found as discontinuous populations in parts of the Bay of Bengal, and elsewhere in south-east Asia. The only other species in the genus, the Australian snubfin dolphin, Orcaella heinsohni, is restricted in its distribution to the northern coast of Australia. The two species are genetically closely related to the killer whale. Irrawaddy dolphins possess a characteristically rounded face and a small dorsal fin. They are slow swimmers, and eat fish, squid, and crustaceans such as prawns and crabs. There are instances of mutualistic relationships between fishermen and dolphins, the fishermen calling in Irrawaddy dolphins which then drive fish into the fishermen’s nets. Unlike the Ganges River dolphin Orcaella brevirostris is not a true river dolphin, but rather an oceanic species with a high adaptive tolerance to fresh and brackish water. In India the species is protected and is included in Schedule 1 of the ‘Indian Wildlife Protection Act’, which bans their killing, transport, and sale of products. Populations outside of India and Bangladesh are listed as ‘critically endangered’ on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature ‘Red List’, a status indicating individual populations face an extreme risk of extinction. Throughout its range threats to the species include gill-netting, ‘electro fishing’, poisoning and sedimentation through gold mining, and dam building. A major restoration project to open a new mouth between Chilika Lake and the Bay of Bengal in 2000 was successful in restoring the ecology of the lake, and regulating the salinity gradient. This led to an increase in the dolphin population due to an increase in prey species such as fish, prawns and crabs.
Returning towards Puri I stop to photograph a group of water buffalos lounging in the comfort of a roadside pond, one slipping totally from view below the water. At a village I buy bananas and a bag of little fruit that resemble green grapes in size and colour. We are stopped for nearly two hours by an accident. Rumour has it that twelve school boys have been injured in a traffic collision, one seriously. He has been taken to a hospital at Cuttack, near Bhubaneswar. The police have been called and I am advised to remain in the car. I while away the time reading a newspaper article concerning the practice of chewing tobacco and its expectoration in public places, and engage in conversation with a man who has a sister living in Victoria. She sends back a small amount of money each year, and this pays for his daughter’s education at college. She wants to be a doctor. Eventually the long line of halted vehicles gets underway. By next morning reports of the accident have metamorphosed into a collision involving a bus and nine school girls, all of whom only received minor injuries.
Back at the hotel a man is watering the garden plants, children play by the pool, and here and there European guests sit in idle chat, refreshments in hand. Beyond this diorama of privileged seclusion is the beach, and the sound of surf; that familiar crash and muffled ‘boom’ of modestly sized waves. I cannot resist it. It is 5 pm, the light is still prominent, and deeming it not yet the feeding hour of sharks, I’m off, out from my room, down hallway and past the concierge, across the grassy lawn and past the still present poolside masseur, past astonished miscellaneous staff and guests, me in board shorts, hiking boots and t-shirt, and a large bottle of spring water in hand. Through the gate, the cow replaced by grinning guard, and across the road and boardwalk to sand and surf I hasten. Finally I am on the beach, its sand brown and coarse, like the river sand of home. Surf’s up!
And there’s not a single soul out amongst the waves, just a few teenage boys splashing about in the surge zone. Everyone else is busy digging holes, lazing about on blankets or simply ambulating leisurely along. They could have been anywhere but the seaside. All are fully clothed, each and every one, even those courageous enough to splash about at ankle depth. It is, after all, like all the scenes I’d ever seen of British coastal resorts, lots of water, and nobody in it. Their loss, I’m off. Boots, water bottle and shirt in a heap on the sand, I hazard the possibility of enraging the ire of chaste family onlookers and the local moral protection gendarmerie, and enter the water half-clothed. For all I know Puri beach might be the haunt of zealous Brahmin life guards on the lookout for foreigners without a shred of piety or public rectitude. I was caught between two opposing standards of propriety, that as conveyed by the contemporary restraint of Indian films, or that of the ‘in your face’ erotica of Indian sculpture, not to mention the best-selling and fully illustrated ‘Karma Sutra’. So I went with the bare chest look, taking my chances with the moral mores of the local constabulary. The water was warm, wet, and of an acceptable colour. I couldn’t feel the slightest sensation that might indicate the danger of an off-shore rip, I couldn’t see any fish large enough to be worried about, and there was nothing floating by of a nature that gave me cause for concern.
I caught wave after wave. I was the Lord of the Ocean at Puri Beach. I lacked only a trident and a bevy of mermaids to more convincingly play the part. I ‘body surfed’ until the fading light suggested that the large fish, the ones with the prominent dorsal fins, might soon come out to feed.
There on the shore stood people, a real lot of them, just watching.