Elephants do and can swim far if they need to. However, they are more likely to be soaking in the water to cool off than to get from A to B – or to keep fit.
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How Do Elephants Swim?
Virtually all mammals have their front-facing front legs – and so in the water, the doggy paddle comes naturally to them. Even something as massive as an elephant still stays afloat by ‘doing the doggy paddle’ like everyone else. Alternating the front legs in an outward and downward pattern, while cycling the back legs, works a treat.
Even though the elephant can weigh between 2.5 and 7 tonnes each – they still have the natural buoyancy needed to swim. With a decent layer of fat and a great big pair of lungs – they can stay afloat in water for great lengths of time.
Their natural weight balance – and heavy skulls – means that their heads can’t fully stay above the water. As a result of this – their mouths are actually totally submerged. But of course – elephants have a trick up their sleeve – a snorkel. Using their trunks as breathing tubes, they can steadily swim or stay completely underwater for long periods without having to keep coming up for air.
Baby elephants haven’t always figured out how to use their trucks properly for the first 6 months of their lives – so they can’t always swim properly. Adult elephants watch out for them in deep water and help out where needed.
How Far Can An Elephant Swim?
Although there isn’t often enough deep water in their natural habitat to test how far they can swim – there are some prehistoric clues. Some experts postulate that for certain elephant bones to be found in distant island chains – such as off the coast of Africa and even California – elephants must have been able to stay afloat for over 50km – may be up to 300km even.
It is believed, from recent findings, that elephants are slow and steady swimmers, like Polar Bears. (article: Can all bears swim) With their low-energy swimming technique and steady action, they can swim for hours if needed. Although it’s not likely there would be an ethical case for testing this – it is widely believed to be true. Elephants spend a lot of time in water and hardly ever get into trouble in rivers and lakes – so they seem like pretty confident swimmers.
Can An Elephant Drown?
It certainly wouldn’t be through any normal means – but if an elephant was injured or very young – and the water was rough – it is possible. In normal calmer waters, even in rivers and deep places – even the youngest of elephants seem to be just fine.
There are instances where bad luck comes into play – such as a collapsing or over-steep bank or a steep-sided well – which could catch out a youngster. Even rarer would be a sudden situation occurring in a flood when the elephants are in very deep water or near rapids – but elephants club together. The first sign of any trouble and the matriarch can normally work out a solution before anyone comes to any harm.
There are plenty of videos online of elephants helping each other out of a sticky situation – or humans stepping in to help out an understanding but distraught mother. However, there are also the odd sad videos where the help came just too late.
Here is a video of an elephant 16km out to sea.
Here Locals Are Helping 2 Elephants Out Swimming
Could A Crocodile Kill An Elephant?
Another great problem with swimming in rivers and lakes are the crocodiles. In parts of both Africa and India there are two of the largest crocodile species in the world: the Nile Crocodile and the huge Saltwater Crocodile. Both can be over 15ft long (450cm) as prime adults – and are capable of attacking elephants when hungry.
Quite often though – and as seen on many online videos – crocodiles attack the trunk of an elephant when they are drinking by the edge of the water – but they will also attack smaller elephants in deep water if they leave the safety of the group. On the ground – older, larger elephants can attack the crocodiles easily by stamping on them – but in deep water, they lose this advantage completely.
So although a crocodile most likely can’t kill an adult healthy elephant – they may well be able to take advantage of very young or injured single elephants.