Navy Ship Rescues Massive Land Animal Stranded in the Middle of the Ocean

By: James Dorman | Last updated: Jul 12, 2024

The Sri Lankan Navy dispatched ships to rescue a huge land mammal that found itself stranded 10 miles off the coast near the town of Kokkilai in Sri Lanka.

The animal they rescued certainly wasn’t one you’d typically expect to find out paddling in the ocean — it was a massive Asian elephant.

Swept Out By the Currents

The Sri Lankan Navy confirmed that they successfully rescued an elephant from the ocean roughly 10 miles off the island’s northeast coast.

Grayscale photo of fast-running water forming multiple waves.

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Navy personnel theorize that the animal was caught in a current off the coast near the town of Kokkilai and dragged out into the open ocean. Luckily, the elephant was spotted by a patrol boat.


A 12-Hour Rescue Effort

The Department of Wildlife dispatched officials to oversee the rescue effort, and another navy vessel was sent to support the aquatic operation.

Orange lifering hanging on a rail on the deck of a boat.

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The basic approach of the rescue was to drag the stranded animal back to shore. Far easier said than done, and safely executing the rescue was a 12-hour operation.

The Animal Was Led Back to Shallow Waters

Divers, with the help of wildlife officials, began the rescue by approaching the understandably distressed elephant.

Underwater photograph of a person in full diving gear with an oxygen tank on their back.

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They tied ropes to the animal and began to carefully drag it back toward land. Once they had gently towed the elephant into shallow waters near the coast, they released it to go on its way.

Less Extraordinary Than You Might Think

The idea of an elephant being 10 miles out in the middle of the ocean is in fact a tad less unusual than you might think.

A large gray elephant standing in a body of water surrounded by green grass.

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According to Avinash Krishan of the conservation group A Rocha, elephants are excellent swimmers. Swimming 10 miles or so from the shore isn’t that unusual for them.

Intervention Was Still Needed Though

Krishan adds that the navy’s rescue effort was probably still necessary as the large animals can’t keep swimming for long due to how much energy they burn.

A group of people in a gray inflatable life boat in open water.

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Salt water also isn’t particularly good for their skin. So despite elephants frequently swimming offshore, a rescue intervention was probably needed in this case.


Island Hopping Elephants

It isn’t uncommon for Asian elephants to swim short distances to travel between different land masses, though they typically prefer freshwater swims.

An Asian elephant places its tusks on a tree trunk.

Elephants have been known to swim in salt water too. A group of elephants was famously brought to the Admaman Islands, an Indian archipelago, in the 1970s and learned to swim between the small landforms to help log the islands.


How This Elephant Ended Up Offshore

This particular elephant was likely attempting to get to a particular part of jungle before it fell into peril. The navy believe it was probably attempting to cross the Kokkilai lagoon, a stretch of water between two patches of jungle.

A large elephant stands on a rocky, sandy shoreline near a body of water.

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Elephants often wade through shallow waters or even swim across the lagoon as a shortcut. That’s likely what this one was doing before being swept out to sea.


Surprisingly Well Suited to Water

Elephants are surprisingly well suited to water, as the divers discovered as they approached the stricken animal and saw it trying to keep its trunk above the water.

Closeup grayscale photo of an elephant with it trunk curling upward.

Source: Alexandre Chambon/Unsplash

Elephants use their trunks as a sort of natural snorkel. They also have a lung structure that’s unique among mammals and enables them to withstand pressure variations above and below the water.


Close Relatives of Water Mammals

This aquatic aptitude starts to make more sense if we look at the genetics and evolutionary lineage of elephants.

Underwater image of two large, gray manatees swimming close to one another. One is larger than the other, they appear to be parent and child.

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Genetically speaking, elephants are close relatives of dugongs and manatees. These species themselves are closely related and are both large, fully aquatic mammals. Both dugongs and manatees are in fact believed to be descendants of land mammals.


How Elephants Reached Sri Lanka in the First Place

Sri Lanka is an island country, and it has long been wondered how elephants came to populate it. Some theorize that they migrated there from the Indian mainland at a time when there were still land connections between India and Sri Lanka.

A large adult elephant walks beside a small, infant elephant.

Source: Casey Allen/Unsplash

Other biologists believe elephants may have swum to Sri Lanka from southern India. This would in fact have seen them take a similar route to the stranded animal the navy rescued.


Amazing Elephant Rescue

The idea of an elephant paddling around 10 miles out into the ocean is pretty extraordinary at first glance, as is the thought of a navy-mounted rescue mission.

Close-up photograph of an elephant’s eye.

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But perhaps more bizarre is the fact that to local experts, it wasn’t that out of the ordinary. The idea of elephants being regular swimmers makes sense when you consider their biology and how they came to populate island habitats. However, you still don’t think of them as being quite so at home in the open sea.