Saltwater Crocodiles & rare varieties of Kingfisher Birds! Yes, Bhitarkanika National Park in Odisha is where you should head to have a rendezvous with them. On Google Maps search for Bhitarkanika, zoom in a bit, you will be fascinated to find the lush green national park/wildlife sanctuary on the north-east coast of Odisha.
Rivers Brahmani, Baitarani, Dhamra, Pathsala flowing east into the Bay of Bengal form, and aid this wetland of global importance. It plays host to the second largest mangrove ecosystem in India in the Kendrapara district of Odisha. The 145 sq.km National Park is further surrounded by another 670 sq.km of Wildlife Sanctuary.
On a road trip from Bhubhaneshwar, exploring the Buddhist heritage sites of Udayagiri, Ratnagiri & Lalitgiri caves en route we reached the Sand Pebbles Bhitarkanika Jungle Resorts tent house campus by the evening.
Boat ride at Bhitarkanika National Park
The next day we got up early morning in anticipation of meeting the Saltwater Crocodiles. However, the weather had other plans, and we had to wait for a long time for the mist to settle down. We took a walk around the village and could hardly see a few meters ahead. The view could be even worse on the creeks. After more than an hour, finally, we got the green signal from the forest department officials.
Thus began our motorboat journey into the network of creeks and backwaters. These motorboats approved to ply in the national park can accommodate 12-20 personnel. They are slow-moving boats and comes fitted with washrooms, that was such a relief to see.
The still waters in these creeks of Bhitarkanika National Park are about 20-30 ft deep. This can vary during monsoons and high tides. The major creeks are about 100 meters wide. The network of creeks also has narrow and very shallow water ones.
Unlike most national parks of India, where popular sightings are Lions, Tigers, Wild Elephants & Rhinoceros, here the star attraction is the powerful Saltwater Crocodiles. You can see big and small of them sunbathing every few meters away. Of course, the creeks, islands, lush green backwaters, birds and walk-through dense forests all around enthrall you.
Bhitarkanika is probably the best natural home to the Saltwater Crocodiles in India with all the backwaters, the network of creeks, rivers, and Bay of Bengal accessible to them. Sunderbans are potentially the closest competitor.
All three species of crocodiles, the Gharials, Muggers and Saltwater crocodiles were on the verge of extinction by the 1970s in the river systems of Odisha. From an estimated less than 100 Saltwater crocodiles to more than 1700 plus in nature has been a long journey in the riverine systems of the Dangmal over the past 4 decades. Khola-Brahmani river confluence to Bhitarkanika-Pathasala river confluence the host to most of them.
Some interesting information about these giant Saltwater Crocodiles:
- Their weight at birth is less than 100 gms. They can grow to about 1000 Kgs in weight over adulthood
- Born less than a foot, they can grow to about 20 feet or more
- The first 10 years in nature is probably the toughest period for them, as a mere 1% of the newborn survive predators or natural calamities
- The Wet season or Monsoon season is when the adults mate, therefore the national park is closed for visitors from May 01 to July 31 every year
- While the adults are fiercely territorial and fight to death throughout the year, they socialize during the wet season
- Everything meaty forms their diet, though large adults need large animals for a good meal
- Humans are also prey to the adult large crocodiles
- They can move swiftly and quickly to capture prey particularly in the water and on the banks
- Their bite power is supposedly the highest among mammals. That means if caught in their jaw, forget life or at least the part of the body caught in the jaw
- They lay about 4-5 dozen eggs and they lay them well beyond the high tide water levels to keep them safe. Both males and females guard the eggs until hatching. However, their eggs are a delicacy for the Monitor Lizards which are more agile on the land than crocodiles
- Fish, Crabs, Birds to Mammals like Wild Boars, Deers are all their prey
- Similarly, the new hatchlings of crocodiles are also the prey for vultures like Eagles and Kites
In general, Crocodiles seem to be the laziest beings around. During our 5 hour-long excursions into the islands of Bhitarkanika National Park, we saw most of them lazing around on the banks, basking in the sun as if they have no worry in the world. Only a couple of them were floating in the waters, I wonder if they were the ones who were hungry. The largest size crocodiles, both male, found almost on all boat rides in this range are fondly called/named Kalia and Balia by the local guides.
Saltwater Crocodiles Breeding Centre
On one of the islands we visited, there is a crocodile breeding center. There the newborn hatchlings are taken care of, protected and segregated based on their age, on a yearly basis. They are safe for the first ten years in this center with respect to food, safety, any medical attention required and natural calamities in the wilderness. It also acts as a learning center for the Veterinarians handling them. After the age of 10, they are released in the wilderness carefully, without disturbing the territory of any aggressive adults.
The breeding center visit takes another 10-15 minutes. You can how the crocodiles grow with age very clearly here.
One of the potentially albino crocodiles, called Gori, with a significantly lighter color skin tone in yellow shades is stationed in a pond closeby. You can notice several younger ones in the wilderness in similar shades.
A small but informative museum on the island hosts an about 20 feet (19.8 feet) long skeleton of a naturally deceased Saltwater Crocodile found in this national park. Stand next to it and you will admire the enormous size. You get to see its anatomy from close quarters. It feels like a precise mechanical model at the first look. But then you realize it is nature’s perfect engineering.
It is interesting to stand next to this crocodile because no one can dare stand so close to the alive one. You are not allowed to get off the boats and walk over closer to the waters at all during the national park guided tour. Don’t even attempt anything like that. It will a matter of seconds between life and death.
The museum also hosts a head portion of muggers, deer, dolphin skeleton, etc, it is sheer a matter of size that you can note. There are photographs of birds, flora, and fauna that you can see at Bhitarkanika National Park. You will need 10-20 minutes at the museum. I wish they had a brochure or a booklet on the park for tourists to take with them.
By the time we visited this island, we were tired. Thankfully they have provisions for drinking water, restroom, battery-driven rickshaw. Best of all fresh tender coconut vendor. We did relish tender coconut water and felt recharged, as our lunch would have been an hour away.
We did a 3-4 km walk through the dense mangrove jungles on an island. Fortunately, the forest department has laid out a clear walking path. You cannot go there without a forest guide. I seriously suggest that you do not try to go alone as the pathways can get confusing for visitors and you can easily get lost there.
These forests have Cobras, Pythons, Wild Boars, Monitor Lizards, Spotted-deers and more. Therefore be careful and do not venture out of the pathways. Do keep an eye out for the snakes. We did not encounter any snakes, that does not mean ignore them.
The green canopy formed by the trees through which a few rays of the sun were seen, was an experience of its kind. There were creepers growing on the trees at their expense. We could see a lot of small natural ponds throughout our walk. I enjoyed the view of water bodies surrounded by lush green trees, reflecting in the waters and creating a visual panorama. We stopped by most of them to take in all the elements of nature living in perfect harmony and creating magic. There were quite a lot of water birds there. Due to poor light and restricted access, it is not easy to take pictures of birds here.
We did come across a Monitor Lizard on our path in the jungles. What appeared to be lazy, just vanished at our calls pointing towards it and trying to click images.
The Heronry here will have hundreds of nests of the birds atop the trees of this mangrove forest during the monsoon season. Visitors are allowed during monsoons. This is the time when you can learn about them and hopefully take images. This shows how popular this national park is for the migratory birds.
While walking the forest from one boating jetty to another, we saw tall Machans that are used to survey the forest during monsoons. They are also the place to see migratory birds.
An interesting concrete double story structure with many small rectangular holes intrigued us. Our guide smiled and said this is the hunting palace of the erstwhile kings. The holes are the places to put guns to shoot the animals. It actually looks like a solid cage with holes. I wondered if the subjects knew of this cage from where the king hunted when he boasted back home of his bravado.
A bright fluorescent green Shiva temple stood out because of its color. It is a small temple but it following the style of Odisha temples with a big Amalaka on the top. Temple was closed and a small Nandi sat outside as if guarding the temple. A pyramidical pot had Tulsi plant in it.
Close by there was a temple in stone dedicated to Van Durga. This small dilapidated temple has many Murtis inside and a few outsides. Thet show signs of regular worship although around noon time we could not see anyone around.
Rare Kingfisher Birds
Now Kingfishers are some of the most common birds you find in India. We have seen them everywhere. At Bhitarkanika, we got to see 6 different types of Kingfisher birds in its dense mangroves dotting the creeks. 3 of these varieties we saw for the first time. It was one of the reasons to visit this national park. Their sighting is more or less guaranteed here is what we knew. While waiting for the boat ride to start, Our guide Anand showed some of these bird’s images captured on his mobile and that added to our excitement.
Sighting Brown-winged Kingfisher, Black-capped Kingfisher, and Collared Kingfisher birds were the icing on the cake. We had heard of these birds sighted along the Zuari river estuary in Goa too but there are no organized regular boat trips here.
Our guide with his trained eyes sighted birds from afar. Our boatman appreciating our interest happily took short turn arounds to help us get a better view and photograph the birds. The boats being motorboats are never completely stationary, so you need a damn fast camera with a powerful zoom lens to capture birds.
The best place to sight birds is the lower branches of the mangroves along the creek. Just keep your fingers crossed that they don’t fly away or hide behind the leaves.
The other 3 Kingfishers we sighted can be seen across the country near the water bodies, like the Common Kingfishers, White-throated Kingfishers & Pied Kingfishers.
Several other Waterbirds like Herons, Egrets, Eagles & Kites and so on can be sighted along the creeks during the boat rides and along the jungle walks. We could listen to a bunch of Woodpeckers during the walk through the dense mangrove jungles. Guess they were Pygmy Woodpeckers, could not get a clear photo though due to shadow these jungles offer them.
Video of a trip to Bhitarkanika National Park
Take a look at the short video clip of our visit posted on our YouTube channel. You will get a glimpse of what to expect if you plan/choose to visit.
There are boat rides available to head to the beaches along the Bay of Bengal, to visit larger islands or even to travel across to the villages far away. Check out what interests you and explore accordingly. Living in Goa, we were not interested in visiting the beaches.
Some information you need to know in advance for visiting the national park and boat rides here:
- A photo identity card is required for every visitor to register before embarking on a boat ride
- There is a small fee charged by the Forest department to visit the national park
- Boat rides charges are variable depending upon what you wish to explore and the time it will take
- Boats have a very basic toilet facility onboard
- You can carry refreshments in the boat, but do not discard non-biodegradable wrappers/bottles in the waters and forests
- Do not feed any kind of food to wild animals, birds
- Do carry drinking water and caps for your head, if you are going on a long boat ride
- Binoculars can be helpful in sighting wildlife
- For latest prices check this website
Where to stay at Bhitarkanika National Park?
We stayed at Sand & Pebbles Bhitarkanika Jungle Resorts & we definitely recommend them for exploring the national park.
They have tented accommodation very close to the boat jetty, making it easy to explore the area. They are located within a village area, and a village walk can introduce you to the rural life of Odisha. We walked around and discovered lovely wall murals on the mud walls of houses around our resort. Not to mention all the animals that peacefully co-exist with human beings here.
A bridge on the river close by is a great place to spot birds early morning and late evening. Our tent opened up to a small pond and it was like living on the edge of the water.
The resort has comfortable tents with attached washrooms. The staff is very polite and professional. Being local, most of their staff knows the jungle well and they could show many birds within the resort facility. Food is cooked in-house, mostly from locally sourced vegetables and that itself is a great experience to have surrounded by nature. We enjoyed the fresh food at Sand Pebbles resort during our stay.
Prawns and Crabs dishes are supposed to be some of the popular local delicacies. Try if you are a non-vegetarian.
Do ask their staff to take you for a village walk and to the nearby Jagannath Temple that has beautiful stone carvings to see.
Bhitarkanika is a bio-diversity hot spot that you must explore and responsibly.
We also visited Lalitagiri, Ratnagiri & Udaygiri the Buddhist triangle, Jhajapur, Puri, Konark, Bhubhaneshwar, Uadygiri Khandagiri caves, Mangalajodi, Raghurajpur. Do read these upcoming posts.