We know that elephants like water, whether for splashing or squirting, but no known zoo has a tank big enough to allow them to do what they like best of all, which is to swim. They swim well, faster than human beings, with a range of up to six miles. They use their trunks, as commonsense suggests they would, as a God-given snorkel. In India, elephants are said to have survived, out of their depth, in turbulent rivers for days by poking their trunks above the surface.

In the Andaman Islands off the Bay of Bengal, elephants perform their immemorial Asian tasks - "Elephints a pilin' teak/ In the sludgy, squdgy creek" as Kipling put it - and when the work is done on one island they merely bellyflop into the surf, mahout (trainer) aboard, and doggy paddle to the next island. It saves on boats and provides regular entertainment for the beach bums.

The elephant in the photograph is called Sarasu and belongs to a wealthy landowner on the island of Havelock in western Andaman. He was born in captivity, which is unusual, and his lifestyle compares favourably with that of many Indian people. Venerated because of the association with the elephant-headed god Ganesh, "the god who removes obstacles", Sarasu, like his colleagues, never works on Sundays, finishes work at 3pm come what may, and can look forward to retiring at 60 and spending his sunset years squirting and splashing on the boss's reservation.

When he dies, however, Sarasu will not be interred in an elephants' graveyard. Elephants do not, as folklore would have it, repair in old age to particular burial grounds to wait for the end. The sites where large concentrations of elephant remains have been found were probably bogs or quicksands where one elephant after another, hundreds of years ago, went for a refreshing dip, and never came back. Peter Popham

Photographs by Olivier Blaise