Chilka Lake Bird Sanctuary

Chilka Lake a large brackich water ecosystem and an internationally important wetlands area. In 2001, hoping to promote more tourism, the Indian government cut a passage for tour boats through a sandbar, altering the exchange of freshwater and saltwater that gave the lake its special quality, endangering fish habitat, and putting the entire lake at risk.

While there are many awe-inspiring temples in this east Indian province—the Sri Jagannath Temple in Puri, the Sun Temple of Konark—one of the most charming is the modest Kalijai temple, set on its own tiny island in the middle of a vast brackish lagoon. It’s the setting that makes it so special: the impossible blue of the water, the craggy backdrop of mountains, and most of all, the number of colorful birds drawn to this rich feeding ground.

A seasonal push and pull rules the waters here in India’s largest coastal lake. Fresh water pours in from the Mahanadi River in monsoon season, salt currents flush back from the Bay of Bengal during the dry season, and a long silted-up sandbar traps the waters in place. Some 225 species of fish have been counted in Chilka Lake, and where there’s that many fish, there are bound to be loads of aquatic birds: white-bellied sea eagles, greyleg geese, purple moorhens, jacana, herons, and the world’s largest breeding colonies of flamingoes, their vivid orange-pink flocks hard to miss. Migratory birds arrive October to March as well, from as far away as Siberia’s Lake Baikal and the Himalayas. Though poaching has been a persistent problem—up to 20,000 birds a year may be killed—the government is now working hard to educate local villages in the importance of protecting the birds.

Reedy Nalaban Island is a sanctuary for migratory birds, especially dense flocks of all sorts of ducks and geese. You can visit Nalaban by boat, but it takes as long as 90 minutes, with no other land in sight for much of the trip. Guides know they have to cut their engines once they get near; they paddle closer, and you wade through the last stretch of 1.2m-deep (4-ft.) swampy water to get to an observation tower. Satapada Island is known for its rare Irrawaddy dolphins, but sightings are increasingly rare, as more and more dolphins have been fatally caught in fishing nets.

The local economy is based on fishing — it’s quite a sight to see, as scores of small fishing craft steer out on the lake at sunrise in pursuit of mackerel, crabs, and prawn. The lake’s so fertile, the fisherman and the birds have always shared in its bounty—until now. But with the traditional currents altered because of the new channel, weeds have begun to take over areas of the lake, and the fishermen are suffering. Kalijai, the goddess of the lake, must be weeping.