India – Chilika Lake

One of the best things about travelling long term is that you end up meeting tons of experienced travelers or people who can recommend great places that you may not find about otherwise. For India, we have mostly organized our tour according to recommendations from others, so when one of our “informers” mentioned the word “dolphins”, that new destination was added really quickly.

There is an area in the state of Odisha with a lagoon home for an estimated 100 Irrawady dolphins. They are beautiful and dark grey with a pretty round head and fins, and are related to my favorite cetacean, the orca. Although they are oceanic, they often live in estuarine waters. The United Nations listed them as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. We thought we would not see Irrawadys until we arrived to Burma—destination that is planned for the very end of our trip—so this is a pleasant surprise. As with the Ganges River dolphins in Nepal, these are hard to spot because of the murky waters they live in and because they avoid boats.

Our quest commences! We take a bus from Puri towards Chilika Lake with the hope of seeing these elusive and fascinating creatures. The temperature is quite warm so the 3-hour bus ride seems very long. The villages start scattering and more and more water and green trees replace the landscape. We arrive there at 1 PM, my heart pumping of excitement (I get more nervous about seeing dolphins than many children, haha).

As our feet step out of the bus, what seems like the whole town approaches to offer their dolphin watching services. We want to find out which is the most responsible agency of the existing two, so after asking around, the winner is the official tourism office of Odisha with smaller, quieter engines. As we wait for the boat, we go see a park nearby (you can see my excitement in the picture).

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The boat is tiny, but it’s just for the two of us and the “captain”. Further inside the water and pretty soon he points to the right and says “dolphin!”. We only get to see a couple of heads surfacing to breathe and then they leave and become tiny dots. We continue towards the inner area of the lake and we think that maybe this will be all we’ll get to see, because after 50 minutes have passed, there are no other finned friends anywhere.

The docks with low tide where our boat is waiting.

The docks with low tide where our boat is waiting.

A local boat.

A local boat.

Horizon of birds.

Horizon of birds.

Locals fishing on the lake.

Locals fishing on the lake.

And then… “dolphin!” and next to that one, another couple of them, probably a mom and its calf, doing quick circling motions and surfacing much more than before. We stay for some minutes, the boat quietly floating there while they swim at some distance. They don’t pay attention to our presence, except for one of them who approaches at about 2 meters and circles around us for 5 minutes, probably curious. They are not as big as other species and they don’t show their tails when surfacing, but they are still magnificent and beautiful. The experience is enjoyable and worth the long trip, and we go back to the dock pretty happy (mostly me! :P).

As per the limited English he speaks, we understand that our captain thinks luck has been on our side. According to some reviews from previous visitors, people usually don’t see them for very long, if at all, but maybe because we were one of the very few tourists remaining for the day, the dolphins didn’t feel intruded… That’s our hope at least.

It is so hard to spot them that the best option was video recording, but they were so far that it is still hard to see. Here is the video:

Nice light back at the docks.

Nice light back at the docks.

The ambulance is not going to part soon... Hopefully there is no emergency!

The ambulance is not going to part soon… Hopefully there is no emergency!

Another one.

Another one.

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