Text & Photography Frits MeystSituated off the Indian coast, in the Bay of Bengal lie the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Home of a famous pachyderm, better known as ‘Rajan, The Swimming Elephant’. Before he became the star of Barefoot Resort, Rajan already starred in a real Hollywood production: ‘The Fall’. As it happens sometimes with ‘small’ actors in big movies he found himself short changed and marooned on a desert island. The resort owners decided to take care of Rajan and his ‘mahout’, elephant jockey, and he was having a carefree life. In the day he would roam the thick forest, only to show up on the beach for a sunset swim. It was then that an underwater photographer who was diving there, discovered his new underwater ‘model’. That was the moment that Rajan went ‘viral’ on the internet and how I first heard of him. From all over the world, photographers and videographers came to see Rajan and his life was well documented. Then his owner on the mainland showed up to collect him and to sell him to a temple in Kerala, where he would be tied up for his remaining years. On the day of the sale the resort owners decided that they couldn’t let Rajan be chained up, so they started negotiations with the owner who smelled the increased value of his now world famous pachyderm. They managed to secure his freedom for a whopping $60.000. Never ever did anyone pay so much for a retired elephant.
The year after the ‘purchase’ I was in the Andaman Islands to produce an adventure story, so I could not let the opportunity pass to ‘shoot’ Rajan. I clearly remember the moment I saw Rajan walk up onto the beach. Chewing on a pineapple as he moved towards the sea with a slight swagger. Following him in my dive gear and saying to myself: “That weight is never coming off the ground”. But then just as he broke through the waves, there was ‘lift off’ and 10 tonnes of elephant swam away like a dog after his stick. Within seconds I was looking at a big butt and dodging a floating round turd the size of a football, while giving chase to the elephant. With his built in snorkel he explored the sea floor around him and was genuinely having a blast.
The water was kind of murky because of the outgoing tide. We had planned it right around slack tide, which would offer half an hour of good visibility. Rajan was swimming up and down and I tried to stay close, trying hard not to get trampled. He would disappear from view and I would save my air for the moment of true blue. Just as the visibility looked at it’s best, I look around: No Rajan. I ascend to the surface to check on him and see his ample ass this time moving onto the beach. “Where are you going?” I ask the mahout. He tells me he is on his way to the ferry because he has to go to a wedding. I plead with him: “Please one more time! The water is good now!” And so he did, and he made it count.
Vicky, my underwater free diving model, managed to swim right next to Rajan. He was not the least bit disturbed by the bikini clad girl as she gently touched his tusk and looked him into the eye. The gentle giant continued his swim, giving me all the chances I needed to shoot gold. I have seen giant manta’s and 5 meter white sharks, but this is the biggest animal I have ever encountered underwater. Rajan has left a profound impression on me.
Since I photographed Rajan, he has lived a free and happy life, with one bath a day and unlimited roaming in the forest, until the day he passed away peacefully. Even though all elephants are known to swim, Rajan will forever be ‘The Swimming Elephant’. Rest in peace, buddy.