When a group of sailors off the coast of Sri Lanka spotted a creature struggling in the middle of the ocean, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Still, they put their disbelief to one side to help the distressed animal – and their herculean efforts turned into a mammoth rescue mission.
In July 2017 the Sri Lankan Navy was conducting a routine patrol off the coast of Kokkilai, in the northeast of the country. The operation involved one of the seafaring force’s fast attack craft; and while the vessel had no reason to strike during its mission, it certainly did see some action.
As the craft was patrolling the waters, its crew suddenly noticed something flailing around in the water. With their curiosity piqued, then, the men sought a closer look; and that’s when they realized that there was a creature there in desperate need of their help.
What’s more, the animal in question wasn’t a whale or a dolphin; nor was it a porpoise or even a turtle. Incredible as it sounds, it was in fact an elephant. Somehow, the animal had found itself nine miles off the coast, and it appeared to be fighting to stay afloat. Realizing that a life could be at stake, then, the naval crew abandoned their patrol to help the creature out.
To help the crew manage this, officials back at base dispatched another vessel to the scene. Staff also contacted the country’s Department of Wildlife, which sent a team to help with the rescue mission. However, saving the elephant’s life would not be easy.
First, navy personnel needed to somehow capture the distressed animal. To do so, they inched their boat as close to the elephant as was safely possible. Then, they sent out a team of divers to tie ropes around the animal.
But fixing the lines to the giant creature was not straightforward. In some amazing footage of the rescue, one diver can be seen trying to clamber onto the elephant’s back – only to be thrown off into the ocean. The fearless rescuer perseveres, though, and after a while he succeeds in tying his cord around the elephant’s neck.
With the animal now secured, the rescue team proceeded to fasten the ropes to one of the naval vessels, and at last they carefully towed the elephant back to shore. All in all, the noble mission took 12 hours to complete; so by the time the crew arrived back on dry land, night had fallen.
Once they had reached shallow waters, the rescue team subsequently set the elephant free. And while no one knows exactly how the animal landed itself in such a predicament, some believe that a strong current might have dragged it out to sea.
In any case, following its successful rescue efforts, the Sri Lankan Navy released a statement on the incident. “A group of officials from the Department of Wildlife also joined this humongous task, providing necessary instruction which became extremely vital in the rescue mission,” it said.
“Accordingly, they were able to carefully direct the elephant towards the coast from the deep sea, by means of ropes,” the statement continued. “Having safely guided the elephant to the Yan Oya area in Pulmodai, the animal was handed over to the wildlife officials for onward action.”
But while the rescue mission may well have seemed extraordinary, it’s actually not that unusual for elephants to take dips in this way – even offshore. Avinash Krishnan works as a research officer for conservation organization A Rocha, and according to him, swimming is in the animals’ nature.
Speaking about elephants in an interview with The Guardian in July 2017, Krishnan said, “They’re very good swimmers. Swimming about [nine miles] from the shore is not unusual for an elephant.” And the evidence from the Sri Lankan incident lends support to this statement.
In the footage from the rescue, the elephant can be seen poking its truck above the surface of the water. This is because elephants are able to use their trunks effectively as snorkels when swimming. And thanks to their unique lung structure, the animals can also withstand the differences in pressure that exist below and above water.
Interestingly, elephants actually have some proper water-dwelling cousins, too: they are closely related to manatees and dugongs. What’s more, biologists have theorized that pachyderms might have first come to Sri Lanka by swimming there from southern India.
However, despite the animals’ proficiency in water, Krishnan said that the navy was right to step in on this occasion. “[Elephants] can’t keep swimming for long because they burn a lot of energy,” he explained. “And the salt water isn’t good for their skin, so in this case, the situation probably warranted human intervention.”
Officials in fact believe that this particular elephant was probably swept into the ocean when crossing Kokkilai lagoon. You see, the body of water lies between two areas of jungle, so it’s possible that the animal was simply trying to reach the other side and got into trouble.
There’s certainly some more general evidence to support this theory. Due to the geography of their habitat, Asian elephants often travel short distances via water. For instance, in the Andaman Islands, an archipelago between India and Myanmar, researchers have observed the creatures swimming between smaller land features.
Navy spokesman Chaminda Walakuluge therefore believes that the elephant they rescued was simply trying to cross the water when it found itself in peril. “They usually wade through shallow waters or even swim across to take a shortcut,” he said. “It is a miraculous escape for the elephant.”
A miracle amazing enough for a movie? Well, following their epic rescue, naval officers nicknamed the elephant “Jumbo.” Then, once the crew had led the creature to the Yan Oya area, they handed over its care to wildlife officials. At this point, hopefully Jumbo managed to keep its feet on dry land for a while before heading off on its next adventure.