Can Elephants Swim?

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Elephants are giants! They are the largest land mammals on the planet, weighing in at 4 to 6 tons, and measuring between 18–24 feet long. For reference, the Liberty Bell only weighs one ton. You might think that because elephants are so large, they could have trouble swimming. However, elephants can swim! Their swimming skills are much more impressive than you might expect, and science shows us why elephants can splash around easily in the water.

Elephant drinking water while swimming
Elephant drinking water while swimming. Credit: Jon Rawlinson/Wikimedia Commons

How long can elephants swim?

Humans can swim underwater for up to 90 seconds without taking a breath. Holding your breath for 90 seconds is difficult, especially when adding in a movement like swimming. But elephants have a trick to keep swimming underwater for longer than humans. In fact, they can stay underwater for as long as they want. Elephants have a built-in snorkel! They can use their trunks to take a breath of fresh air while keeping their bodies completely underwater. Elephants even have buoyancy , which is the ability of an object to float in water. Buoyancy makes it easier to swim, because elephant do not sink as they are trying to move forward in the water.



What distance can elephants cover? Elephants can swim for miles. One elephant in India was even recorded swimming 22 miles. That’s almost the length of a marathon, or nearly 400 football fields long! Elephants can cross rivers with their snorkel trunks and strong swimming skills. When humans are first learning to swim, we tend to use a technique called the “doggy paddle.” Elephants use this same “doggy paddle” style of swimming.

Elephants swimming in the group
Elephants swimming in a group. Credit: David Minty from Australia/Wikimedia Commons

Why do elephants swim?

Did you know that elephants need to drink up to 50 gallons of water a day? That’s just a bit more than the amount of water that can fit in a normal size bathtub. If you have ever seen elephants at the zoo, they spend a lot of their time near water. In addition to drinking water, they also use it to cool down on hot and sunny days, spraying water from their trunks. Elephants can get what they need from water without swimming. But baby elephants still learn how to swim at only a few months old. Why? In the wild, sometimes elephants need to swim to get to food sources. If the area an elephant lives in is ever flooded, or if a normally shallow river rises in water level, elephants may need to cross the water to get food they normally eat.

Baby Elephant walking
Baby elephant walks through the water. Credit: Dominik Angstwurm/Wikimedia Commons

Can elephants swim in the ocean?

Most elephants are located near fresh water sources. Salt water can be irritating to elephants, just like it can be to humans when it is too salty. However, some elephants have been seen swimming in salt water. One very special elephant named Rajan lived on the Andaman Islands. He swam in the ocean often, and he seemed to have fun doing it! But Rajan was most likely the last elephant to swim in the ocean, as fresh water is less irritating to elephants.

An elephant goes for a swim
An Elephants goes for a swim. Credit: aqua.mech/Wikimedia Commons

If you ever visit the zoo, be sure to see the elephants! They will likely be playing around the water, even if they’re not going for a swim.


Read more on elephants:

Do elephants have good memory?


Flesch Kincaid Score: 75.6


Flesch Kincaid Reading Level: 7th grade


Buoyancy: The ability of an object or animal to float in water


  • Tess Bub
    : Author
    Tess Taggart Bub has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a minor in data science from Houghton College. During her undergraduate studies, she conducted research in the areas of climate science, ecology, and muscle biology. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center studying host cellular response to viral infection. She is a strong believer that science can change the world, especially when it’s shared. In her free time, she loves communicating science, playing guitar and piano, and running. Writing for smore gives Tess the opportunity to help inspire a new generation of women in STEM.

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