Floating Through the Sundarbans: Exploring the Jungle by Boat

And how to plan your trip to Sundarbans National Park.  
tiger Sundarbans Mangroves, West Bengal
Tigers are the main draw at the Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since a large area of the mangroves is often underwater, these big cats are expert swimmers and can survive on fish, crab, and other crustaceans. Photo by Riddhi Mukherjee.

Ever since I read Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide as a boy, I’ve been fascinated with the Sundarbans. I first visited the national park in 2015, and have been back many times since. On Google Maps, the mangrove forest appears as a small patch of green along the coast, crisscrossed by veins of blue. But once you get to Godkhali Ghat ferry point and set off in a boat, the Sundarbans emerge as an immense, mysterious jungle, a birthplace of myths that is ruled by tigers.

The boat trip I took on my last visit to the Sundarbans yielded some amazing wildlife encounters, thanks to my crew, especially my guide Mrityunjay Mondal.

On the second day, Mrityunjay was scanning the forest from the Sudhanyakhali watchtower with his binoculars, when he spotted a rare and elusive leopard cat. We watched the graceful feline for a few seconds before it vanished into the forest. I also managed to photograph the seldom seen green-bellied malkoha from the same spot.

Another day, we heard a tiger growling near the Panchamukhani Zone while sitting down to lunch. Ignoring our food, we scanned every inch of the mangrove thicket. Suddenly, another tiger’s call pierced the air. My guide guessed it might be a mating pair. The tension grew as our boat cruised slowly forward. Suddenly, about 30 feet away from us, behind the scraggy trees, was an immense male Bengal tiger. He let us photograph him for a leisurely 10 to 15 minutes before ambling into the forest. Sticking to the middle of the river, we soon spotted a large female with a tawny coat, who prowled along the banks before disappearing into the thicket. Their intermittent roars continued, and later in the day we heard them chasing a group of chital.

Saltwater crocodiles, Sundarbans

A vicious fight between saltwater crocodiles turned the river turbulent. Photo by Riddhi Mukherjee.

Another evening, just as we left the protected area around teatime, Mrityunjay spotted two huge saltwater crocodiles swimming towards us at an incredible pace. Soon, they were right beside our boat, swimming behind each other or side by side. Then, amazingly, the trailing crocodile gained speed, catching the other one by surprise. All hell broke loose and the river turned turbulent as the titans engaged in a dramatic fight. I teared up in gratitude for having witnessed this when it came time to say my goodbyes to the crew.

 

EXPLORE

Because of the muddy terrain, the only way to explore the park is by boat. Due to safety reasons walking in the forest is prohibited, except for around the watchtowers, with a guide as escort. The forest department issues dawn-to-dusk permits for the forest’s various zones: Sajnekhali, Sudhanyakhali, Pirkhali, Lebu Khali, Bonbibi Varani, Panchamukhani, Netidhopani, Dobanki, Sarakkhali, and Choragaji. It is common to see many other boats as well in these open parts of the forest.

The landscape—a blue sky reflected on dark green waters—does not vary much between these zones, but each has its own charm. The Sudhanyakhali Watchtower is a well-known vantage point, located about 25 kilometres from Canning and accessible by boat. Visitors can catch the sunrise and then pray for a tiger sighting to the forest goddess Bonbibi at a shrine located at the tower’s base. At the Dobanki Watchtower, a canopy walk allows visitors a closer look at the mangrove vegetation and habitat. Guided village walks are also recommended. At sunset, visitors must return to their resorts or specified spots where boats can drop anchor for the night.

 

WILDLIFE

Though the Bengal tiger is king of the Sundarbans, there are many other species of beasts and birds in this rich habitat. Others felines include the leopard cat, fishing cat, and jungle cat. Chital deer, rhesus macaques, and wild boar hide among the trees, and water animals include otters, water monitor lizards, Irrawaddy dolphins, Gangetic dolphins, and saltwater crocodiles. There are also elusive snakes and colourful birds of all sorts.

photographing the Sundarbans, West Bengal

A dedicated naturalist and wildlife photographer can make spotting animals much more rewarding.

A dedicated naturalist and wildlife photographer can make spotting animals much more rewarding. Way2Wild organises nature study and photography tours with experienced trackers and naturalists (www.way2wild.in; Rs 13,500 per person for a 2-night/3-day photo tour; includes all meals, jungle cruises, and transfers to and from Kolkata).

 

SAFARI TIMINGS AND COSTS

The park is open throughout the year. August to mid-February are the more pleasant months to visit, and October to January the most popular, with perfect tidal conditions. The weather gets temperamental from mid-March to July. Permits can be obtained from the Sajnekhali forest office. The safaris usually take place from dawn to dusk. Boat permit is Rs 400 per person for all other zones except the interior Netidhopani zone, which is near the core area and costs Rs 800. Visitors pay Rs 60-120 depending on the season. All forest permits can be obtained from Sajnekhali forest office which is an hour and a half from Godkhali.

 

GETTING THERE AND AROUND

The nearest airport is Kolkata, which is about 100 km/3 hr north of the Godkhali Ghat ferry point. From Godkhali, the rest of the journey is by boat. Boat charges range from Rs 3,000-10,000 per day depending on the craft and the season (Nov-Jan are peak months). Most resorts can arrange a boat safari; I recommend Shuvarthi Guha (98367 11148), Gouranga Mondal (80177 38940), and Nitai Mondal (97329 09545, 90910 36626) who have travelled with many photographers and understand their pace.

Boat safari Sundarbans

A boat safari in the Sundarbans gets you a front seat to all the action. Photo by Riddhi Mukherjee.

STAY

Boats The best way to enjoy the Sundarbans is to sit on a boat in the middle of the river with a hot cup of tea, listening to the stories of the naturalists and boatmen. Boats can be hired from Godkhali Ghat, and most have kitchens, beds, and bathrooms.

Resorts Besides boat stays, resorts, too, provide packages that include accommodation, food, boat safaris, and village walks. Tora Camp situated on Bali Island provides an authentic village experience (www.toraresort.in; doubles from Rs 5,883). Sundarban Tiger Camp, also in Dayapur, is an eco-friendly resort with rooms decorated with locally sourced materials (www.waxpolhotel.com; doubles from Rs 4,810). West Bengal Government’s Sajnekhali Tourist Lodge in Pakhiralaya village is a good budget option (www.wbtdc.gov.in/Static_Pages/sajnekhali_lodge.html; doubles from Rs 2,500).

Sundarbans Trivia

  • Sundarbans has been significant ever since the Mughal era. It was first surveyed under Akbar’s reign and has since been an important place for sourcing timber, honey, paraffin, salt and fish. It was under the governance of the East India Company since 1756 and was declared a national park in 1984.

  • Around 14 per cent of its population of four million subsists on agriculture. The others live off the forest and river and collect honey and fish for their livelihood.

  • In the Sundarbans, the Hindus and Muslims worship the same gods. The cult of Bonbibi (the goddess of forests) and Dakshin Rai, the tiger god, are widely followed here.

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    Riddhi Mukherjee found his passion for photography about a decade ago. He has since travelled around the country photographing natural landscapes and wildlife. He is part of The Federation of Indian Photography and has been published across a number of magazines. When he’s not running around with his camera, Riddhi enjoys western classical music and writing poetry.​

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