A Secret Blue Jewel Called Chilika

On the East Coast of India in Southern Odisha, lies Lake Chilika. It is the second largest lagoon in the world and has a spread of around 1100 sq kms. My initial impressions of Chilika were that it would be a vast, flat, monotonous expanse of water. Now, after having spent intimate time with the lagoon, my views are very different.

The landward (Western) side of Chilika is fed by 52 rivers and streams, flowing down from the hills of the Eastern Ghats. The waters here are mostly fresh, clear and the landscape is marshy.

Photo: Aditya Panda

The seaward (Eastern) side is very different. A narrow mouth opens the lagoon to the sea. Daily cycles of tides bring in sea water into the lagoon, making these parts brackish. The entire character of the lake thus changes from the freshwater side to the seawater side and a unique ecosystem evolved to match this dynamic environment.

By the turn of the century, Lake Chilika was almost dead. The mouth on the East had completely closed due to the action of the sea, and without the tidal exchange, silt was not clearing out of the lake. The lake filled up and its depth decreased to as little as a metre in the deepest parts. In late 2000, the Chilika Development Authority (CDA) took a brave decision (in the face of controversy), to open up a new sea mouth and to dredge the silt channel of the lake. Today, thanks to those interventions, Chilika is on a delicate path to recovery.

Complex to begin with, the reincarnated Chilika is no flat, monotonous waterscape. With actors, drama and “conflict” aplenty, it is a grand old show, worn down over the years perhaps, but as intricate as ever.

Birds are the most colorful characters in the Chilika drama. Almost a million birds visit Chilika annually, making it one of Asia’s largest wintering grounds. Seeking refuge from harsher conditions back home, they find both shelter and food in Chilika.

Then there are the people. Almost 150,000 fisherfolk live in and around Chilika, thriving off the produce of the lake. Thousands of other people also live in the vicinity and form the large human cast.

Finally, there are the fish. Almost 225 species of fish live in these waters. Diverse and interesting as the aquatic life is, for the actors on the surface, fish are either just food or a source of livelihood. Nearly 14,000 metric tons of fish, prawns and crabs are caught by humans every year! That’s the weight of around 3000 elephants.

Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan

The diversity of the birds that visit Chilika is incredible. Staying close to the shore are the waders, scouring the shallow waters for food. A Purple Swamphen walks the marshes throughout the day, eating soft shoots of reeds, and any occasional snails or frogs it finds.

A Black winged Stilt stands high and dry on its tall stilt-like legs, which are almost 60% of its total height!

Black-tailed Godwits are commonly seen waders in Chilika.

Godwit flocks would sometimes number in the thousands. Veterans of Chilika reminisce of times when Godwit flocks were so large, that their flight would cover the entire sky and block out even the sun. Sadly, those days are long gone now. “Smaller” though the flocks may have become, their flock maneuvers are quite unforgettable. These maneuvers would start with no warning, but for the sudden sound of thousands of pairs of wings drumming out a low rumble. We would whip around to see wave upon wave of birds rising and falling, surging and pulsing with energy in circles for interminable number of minutes. Just when it started to feel like this spectacle would never end, their swarm force suddenly dissipated, and the birds floated back down to the ground in batches, like graceful parachutes.

Brown-headed gulls are also numerous. They are stealers, not averse to bullying and taking food and eggs from other birds.

The tall, long-legged waders are more graceful. There are Oriental White Ibises…

And also darkly beautiful Glossy Ibises…

Flamingoes, standing tall and moving poetically, are the prettiest and most graceful of the waders. They used to come to Chilika in the thousands. Sadly this year, few birds came. We were lucky to spot a lone flock of around 50 birds, on our last day at Chilika!

Asian Openbill Storks, though impressive, are ugly faced in comparison! They get their name from their bill which is “open” even when closed.

While some birds are residents, others come from far away. Bar-headed geese are the superstars among migrants. Starting from Siberia and Central Asia, they cross the forbidding Himalayas at stratospheric altitudes of 32000 feet, finally reaching the rich feeding grounds of Chilika.

Apart from waders, there are other waterfowl which prefer the open waters. In this picture, a pair of Brahminy Shelducks rise straight up into the air, scared by our approaching boat. These ducks migrate from South East Europe.

Large flocks of Northern Pintailed Ducks would cover the open waters like a carpet. When boats approach too close, hundreds of birds take off in a frenzy of thunderous wingbeats and frothing water.

Wigeons are very pretty ducks. They migrate from Eurasia. On bright sunny days, it was incredibly beautiful to see hundreds of their pinkish-orange and white shapes riding the gentle waves on turquoise blue waters.

Cotton Teals are small and very beautiful. The males are ornate in white and glossy green, and the females have an elegant, graceful black patch around their eyes. The teals seemed to prefer the freshwater parts of the lake and we never saw them in the brackish parts.

With so much food around, Raptors (birds of prey) flourish in Chilika. In fact, Chilika is supposed to have gotten its name from the word “Chilla”, which means “hawk”. In this picture is a juvenile Brahminy Kite. The “wailing infant” cry of Brahminy Kites pervades the air in most parts of Chilika.

However, the kings among Chilika raptors are undoubtedly the royally cloaked White-bellied Sea Eagles. Their nests are high up on tall shore trees. Keen eyesight allows them to spot far away objects in the water, sometimes even from their nests.

Photo: Aditya Panda

It was spectacular to watch this large bird cruise in the sky for many minutes near the mouth, framed against the sea. Suddenly, but gracefully, it dove down to the water surface and grabbed something. It took us a few seconds to realize that it had snatched a sea snake, which must have had no idea of its fate until the moment of attack! It is said that the blow from their talons is so powerful, that prey is stunned or killed outright during the snatch.

Sea eagles in Chilika are quite habituated to humans and one morning, a pair allowed us to approach very close to them. We watched them patiently, waiting for some action. Though they seemed relaxed, they were alert and always watchful of everything around them.

Finally, after almost thirty minutes, they suddenly took off. Unfurling their long wings, they flew low over the waters and headed towards their nest. Our pictures do not seem to do justice to the gracefulness or beauty of their flight!

The popular symbol of Chilika though, does not fly. Under the waters, lives the unique Irrawady Dolphin. These dolphins are extremely shy and not demonstrative or extroverted as their well known bottlenose counterparts in the sea. This is the only place where Irrawady dolphins are found in India. They are critically endangered and occur elsewhere in South-East Asia, in small patchy populations.

Playful, revealing behavior such as this is rarely seen. Most of the time, all you see is the hump or fin as the dolphin breaches the water surface. Less than 150 dolphins are counted in annual censuses, and it appears that rampant dolphin tourism, promising cheap thrills, is putting a severe strain on the few that remain.

There is daily action of a different kind on the shores of Chilika near the sea mouth. When the tide recedes and the scorching sun bakes the earth, an army of red crabs magically appears from underground lairs. One by one, they emerge slowly and warily scan their surroundings for quite sometime until they are entirely comfortable that there is no danger. Then using their claws they mechanically start shoveling sand into their mouths, extracting its nutrients and ejecting out pellets of what they reject. The crabs can do this for hours on end!

They are so jittery and wary that a low flying bird directly above or a human approaching within 10 feet of the outermost crab, will cause the entire army to dive underground within 2 seconds. The red carpet disappears as magically as it appeared! This is why they stay close to their holes. These startling red crabs have not escaped the attentions of the local tourist outfits, and crabs are on the tourist “menu”, in a branded itinerary appropriately labeled “Krazy Krabs”!

Fiddler crabs are tinier and “krazier”. One front claw is very much larger than the other and they raise and lower this prominent claw in a communist style salute, over and over again for minutes on end! There is nothing crazy about this though. It is a mating ritual, meant to warn off rivals and attract females. Interestingly, if a fiddler crab loses its large claw, the smaller one will grow to become a large claw and the lost claw will take over as the small claw!

There are many more varieties of crabs. All in all, thousands of crabs emerge and go about the factory like nutrient extraction process, leaving behind millions of pellets.

So much so, that when the sun sets and the crabs head back underground, they leave behind intricate pellet patterns – swirls, stars and streaks, for hundreds of metres across the exposed sand! At night, the tides wash away nature’s crowdsourced, spontaneous artwork, and the whole phenomenon starts afresh the next day.

Humans however, are the dominant elements of Chilika.

Hundreds of boats criss-cross the waters all day long. Some carry tourists or ferry passengers, but most work the waters for fish. 90% of the boats are fitted with noisy, Lombardini diesel engines that have become part of the Chilika soundscape. One cannot escape the din of the engines, even if one were to be alone in the middle of the lake. There is one saving grace though. Chilika is (apparently) absolutely unpolluted by intentional discharge of waste, as there are no industries or large cities around to dump effluents or domestic sewage into the lake. Noise is the only pollution in the lake for now.

Virtually nothing escapes the fishing net in Chilika. It is amazing that, except for a small, protected bird sanctuary in the center of the 1100 sq km spread, every other part is actively fished using numerous methods.

Starting with one-man operations, walking the marshes and hand trapping fish…

To individual line and hooks.

Box traps…

To illegal prawn “gherys” ensnaring large areas.

All the way up to an entire fishing village gathering together and dragging a net across their strip of lake (community fishing). Fish stand no chance.

Fishing is so extensive and indiscriminate, that even narrow channels to breeding areas in the sea are also netted. A fisherman extracts eggs from a catfish by squeezing it alive. You can see the tiny embryo inside the semi-transparent eggs. Catfish are mouthbrooders. Dads carry the eggs laid by the mom in their mouth.

Chilika is famous for its prawns and crabs. Its produce is considered a delicacy in Odisha and neighbouring states like Bengal, where even Brahmins eat fish. Incredibly, fish from Chilika is marketed and sent all the way to Kerala!

Improved supply chains have helped channel soaring demand, and fish landing numbers reached an all time high in recent years. And yet each individual fisherman’s catch is probably declining. We often saw hours of fishing effort by dozens of men, netting mediocre catches of less than a hundred kilos. This often included fingerlings, indicating that the bottom of the barrel has been reached.

Fisherman, as is their wont all around the world, find reason to complain in Chilika. They blame the declining catch on the interventions of the Chilika Development Authority. Most fishermen were excited to see us with our cameras, and happily displayed their catches. This particular fisherman however, saw an opportunity to vent his frustrations.

Animals have no option, but to find ways of coexisting with humans in Chilika. Here, terns crowd around a fishing boat, looking to pick off escaping fish. Even White-bellied Sea Eagles and Irrawady Dolphins are not averse to frequenting fishing traps, looking for an easy meal.

The fate of many a wetland in the world depends on how people treat water resources. Sadly, India’s track record is especially poor on that front. Only 900 km to the South of Chilika is Pulicat Lake, spanning Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Being very similar in size, hydrology and makeup, it is almost a sister lake. Yet, it is tremendously threatened due to pollution from agricultural, industrial and domestic sewage sources, not to mention siltation and overexploitation problems.

Meanwhile the drama in Chilika hasn’t lost its variety…

Nor has the action stopped completely…

Visitors from far away lands still find reason to come.

Chilika is a secret blue jewel in India’s environmental crown. The Odisha government has taken a proactive interest in Chilika’s well being. With motivated and capable organizations, such as the CDA championing the efforts to preserve Chilika, it is only awareness and people’s participation that remain in bringing the lustre back to this jewel.

Many thanks to Aditya Panda and Ramki Sreenivasan for lending me some of their excellent images to fill the gaps in mine.

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4 thoughts on “A Secret Blue Jewel Called Chilika

  1. Excellent photography and nice informative commentary. Never knew about the place and this article explains in detail about the
    every day life at Chilika. The information given for each photograph is outstanding, brief but comprehensive. Kudos to the entire team.

  2. The narration was excellent with great photography. Particularly pollution of natural resouces cant be avoided, still I felt Chilika retained all the charm of being closer to nature. thanks for sharing.

  3. Excellent photographs that paint a intricate story… the crab patterns were especially stunning. Would like to have seen a photo of a swarm of crabs in action. Wil make a great picture book. A Map of the area a the beginning will set the context for the story and discussion. Awesome job! Great photography.

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