Beautiful Forest - Adrift in the Sundarbans

In the third episode of her Bangladesh travelogue, Jennifer Nandi enters the sinuous spiderweb of the Sundarbans, where the sluggish rivers are reluctant to lose their freedom to the sea

There are three main rivers with their tributaries that make up the Sundarbans. The River Jamuna (Brahmaputra, in India) joins the River Padma (Ganges, in India); and further down its course, joins the River Meghna, whose source is in the Sylhet hills. The western portion of this river system lies in India. Though the Sundarbans have lost half of their inland area over the last 200 years through human encroachment, over 10,000 km of continuous mangrove wilderness remain.

The myriad channels that crisscross the Sundarbans like a spider’s web draw visitors such as us. Innocent of human structure, this landscape answers to a name that means ‘beautiful forest’. One-third of its total area is permanently covered by water. Yet, it is the only mangrove forest with tigers; it harbours one of the largest remaining global population of this highly endangered species. Its coastal waters are home to the world’s largest population of Irrawaddy dolphins. It comes as no surprise that these mangrove forests are one of the two Ramsar sites in Bangladesh. But the Sundarbans is not an easy place to be in.

Twice a day, the character of the water changes from fresh to salty. And twice a day too, much of the mud is exposed to the air. Creatures that live in these stressful environments tolerate the fluctuating changes of fresh to salt water. Rewards for doing so are huge because of the nutrition that is available in such waters. Food is delivered to the estuary every day from both the sea and the land, so the creatures that are able to survive here flourish.

Water hyacinth snagged on a tree after high tide

Cleaning crabs after an early morning catch

The sandbanks being covered by water twice a day snag prodigious amounts of food that are inviting to the daytime gleaning of birds. This is particularly vital for the winter migrants that need to strengthen themselves for the ordeal of their journey to the half-frozen nesting grounds farther north. Small, short-billed waders exploit surface-dwelling organisms of the tidal mudflats. Most waders possess ear openings positioned much further forward than those in other birds. In this way, they are better able to detect vibrations in the mud.

The shifting sandbars of the rivers part the braids of their wandering channels and on this cold, damp and foggy morning, we witness life at the very edge of existence. Pastels of dawn paint the early morning water and jungle a strange hue. We are sitting on a mattress in a flat-bottomed ‘country boat’. The boatman paddles into a small creek. There are other boats like ours – though their compulsion to be out, so early, on such a cold morning, is driven by sheer necessity. They are fishing vessels – anchored with a bit of rope to a convenient snag. The men lean forward, yielding beneath a burden of life, as they lower their nets for fish; others catch crab.

Nypa palms
The forest dawn is long. The dark, impenetrable mangrove forest narrows the channels. We paddle through these tortuously twisted creeks and the mangroves press closer. The water is shallow and dark. On the harsh, sluggish grey, steep banks that lead down to the water’s edge are clear prints of tiger. If one had to emerge for a morning’s snack, I don’t think we had much of a chance, armed guard notwithstanding. Eerie sunlight sifts through curtains of fog. It’s still cold. As we paddle into wider channels, flowerpeckers and sunbirds gather on the blossoms of the flowering trees taking advantage of the cold shafts of sun that part the fog.

The river beds of the Jamuna, the Padma and the Meghna together with their tributaries are full of sediment by the time they reach their estuaries. They become sluggish in their reluctance to lose their freedom to the sea. Mingling with the dissolved salts of sea-water, their sediments clump together and drift to the bottom. These fine-grained, great, grey banks of mud trap the gases produced by the decomposition of organic debris. Earthworm-like creatures, called lugworms, ingest quantities of this mud to extract this organic material. These fat-bodied worms are in turn food for birds whose beaks are able to probe deeper into the mud. We see Whimbrels with their long down-curved bills feeding on the squelchy ooze at low tide. They also feed on fiddler crabs, probing into their burrows with their superbly adapted bills. Curlews with their even longer bills are fewer in number. But it’s still too early for any serious birdwatching and two hours later we head back to our luxury boat for some sustenance.

Sundari trees, after which the Sundarbans take their name
Ken is particularly pleased - I’d taught the cook to use the percolator, so Ken could drink Italian coffee with his substantial breakfast. We are now sailing towards Katka, a port 6 hours away at the very tip of the Sundarbans where we meet the Bay of Bengal. We move onto the bridge. It is flooded with a tide of light. We sit in its warmth and softness with mugs of the hottest coffee, and our binoculars at the ready. It is a delightful winter morning, and we waste it watching waders. We spot the rare Finfoot and then had the vessel halt for a better look! It’s a shy and secretive bird – we are lucky to see it riding high in the water. We see more Whimbrels and Curlews. The steep banks provide little space for them to stand. Brown-headed gulls tail us for a long while. Brahminy Kites circle overhead, and those great white birds, the Large Egrets, with their fierce fiery eyes and spear-like bills, fly from tree to tree in their effort to get away.

And now the true splendour of the mangrove forest reveals itself in a study in halftones. The trees are of different species that have all found ways of adapting to their very particular environment. Of the 50 mangrove species in the world the Sundarbans harbour 20. The Crab-apple mangrove is the most common species we find this morning. Each tree has its share of Fire-breasted Flowerpeckers and Sunbirds that suck nectar from the few flowers remaining. The Mangrove Apple is taller but deer are able to reach its leaves. Rhesus Macaques gather its fruit. The villagers also relish the Mangrove Apple fruit and grind it into a chutney. Local fishermen use Nypa Palm that line the water’s edge, to thatch their country boats for shelter. The Blinding Mangrove has sap, as its name suggests, that blinds. Its wood was used to manufacture safety matches and newspaper. Not anymore. It’s a tall tree which we keep a look out for perching birds. Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins show themselves as fast-disappearing dark shapes.

We settle into lazy inaction. Like light, that great zeitgeber of biological clocks, the stable rhythm of the boat’s engine lulls my body rhythms to a state so peaceful and warm that I close my eyes and hold the moment, as even the wind holds its breath, making it last till the afternoon sun yawns over the water and another sumptuous meal is served.

In the late afternoon we board the country-boat and paddle into the broader channels. We return before the falling river dusk and board our luxury boat to cruise down to Kotka in the Bay of Bengal. Ours is the only boat apart from a few crab fishermen. Here the tidal range is very large and much of the land is flooded. At Kotka we find three other large boats packed with local holiday makers. Tonight again we have an excellent view of the star stippled sky. Another good day passes.

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Copyright: Text and photographs by Jennifer Nandi. All rights reserved.