Elephants are excellent swimmers like all other mammals. The only mammals that have to learn to swim are humans and the primates. The pachyderm’s massive body, very surprisingly, gives them enough buoyancy to float easily. They swim completely submerged, with their head above the water and their mouths below, and use all four legs to paddle. The biggest advantage that elephants have above all other mammals is their trunk. A very versatile proboscis, they use their trunk like a snorkel. This enables them to breathe normally when swimming and allows them to swim long distances.
New research suggests that elephants are great at swimming because they could have evolved from mammals like the sea cow. And the reason they have trunks is because they used them as underwater snorkels!
Elephants love water
Elephants love water and are great divers. You will often see an elephant sticking its trunk up for breath and disappearing under water for a considerable amount of time. Baby elephants enjoy playing in water. They will often try to climb on the backs of older and bigger elephants and then splash back in the water. Calves will suck water into their trunks and spray each other playfully. Elephants also love to cool themselves by having a mud bath. They will scoop wet soil from the bottom of a lake or the river and spray it on to their body to get respite from heat.
Long distance swimmers
Elephants are indeed bulky, but deceivingly so. We must remember that elephants can walk up to eighty miles a day or more in search of food and water. That means that their legs, that have to carry the weight of the body, are very muscular and strong. This, coupled with their ability to use their trunk as a snorkel allows them to swim for hours on end. They can also splay the soles of their feet to help propel their huge bulk when in water.
Elephants do not tire easily when swimming, but if they do, they will just rest in the water for some time. Because of their buoyancy they do not drown. Elephants in Africa have been recorded to have travelled a distance of 48 kilometers across water, as also swimming for six hours continuously. Experts believe that the elephants that live in Sri Lanka are the progeny of elephants that swam across from Southern India across the sea. What appears as the only constraint that would make an elephant seek land when swimming is hunger and thirst when in sea water.
The swimming elephants of South and South East Asia
While African elephants are rarely tamed, Asian elephants across India, Thailand and Malaysia are. The swimming ability of elephants is put to good use here. The Andaman and Nicobar islands in of India are located where the Bay of Bengal meets the Andaman Sea. The distance between these islands can sometimes be several miles. Mahouts, or elephant care takers use elephants to transport people, goods and haul lumber from one island to the other.
The mahouts will take an expecting female elephant to an island where food is available in plenty, and stay with the female. As baby elephants cannot swim till they are four or five months old, and the mother and calf will have to stay there for the duration, the mahouts will choose the island carefully. Later the pair will swim back to the parent island. If a whole herd is to be moved across the sea, the mahouts will ride atop the biggest elephants whereby they get a ride without any effort. When distances between islands are too long the mahouts will guide the herd towards an island in between for a rest , which can sometimes be one or two days. Elephants in Malaysia too are widely employed to transport lumber across water bodies.