Turtles And Swimming (Full Beginner’s Guide)

Copyright: dpotashkin

Most people often wonder whether turtles can swim. These reptiles can either be aquatic, semi-aquatic, or terrestrial. Turtles can swim, but not all species can. Terrestrial turtle species, also known as tortoises, lack the necessary swimming adaptations and thus can’t swim.

Aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles have streamlined body that allows them to swim. Their shell is flatter with a smooth surface. This structure reduces the body’s water resistance when moving in the water. The action facilitates more effortless and more swift movement underwater, which allows them to swim

In addition, sea turtles have flippers while terrapins have a web-like design on their feet. These features enable these animals to propel the body forward while the hind feet push water backward, thus swimming well in water.

Even though turtles can swim, they are not as fast as fish, but they can undoubtedly swim faster than they do walk. Sea turtles are faster swimmers than freshwater species. The swimming speed of a turtle increases when under threat or chasing prey.

Tortoises are also turtles, but they can’t swim. They are not born swimmers, and their body structure makes it hard for them to swim. Tortoises lack webbed feet and have a high doom-like shell with a rough outer surface. A combination of these features makes it impossible for tortoises to swim.

Do Turtles Get Tired Of Swimming? 

Yes, turtles can get tired of swimming. For this reason, they often find a basking spot for resting. Turtles also sleep underwater not only in the wild but also in captivity. They can get about an hour of rest from sleeping underwater after which, they will swim to the water surface to breathe.

Do not leave your pet turtles in water for long without a basking spot which they also use for resting. Otherwise, the turtle might get too tired and drown to death.

How Deep Can Turtles Swim? 

Aquatic turtles can swim well in deep waters. The depth of how far the turtle can go depends on their species and experience. Sea turtles are better swimmers in deep waters than all other turtle species. On average, they can swim to a water depth of 950 feet.

Leatherback turtle species are the best divers of all marine animals and can get to a water depth of almost 4,000 feet. They can do so because they do not have rigid breastbone and their leather-like shell helps absorb nitrogen, a process that reduces the challenges that arise decompression during deep water dives.

Other excellent deep-diving turtles include the loggerheads, hawksbill, and green sea turtle species.

Can Turtles Survive In Deep Water? 

Aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles can survive in deep waters. Their bodies have adaptations for holding their breath for long and swimming for long in high-density waters.

Sea turtles have a higher capacity of surviving underwater. Depending on the activity level, they can survive in deep waters by holding their breath for up to 7 hours in case of minimal activity.

Other aquatic turtles can also hold their breath in deep waters for up to one hour. Even so, a turtle under panic will not survive for long in deep waters. Baby turtles are more at risk of drowning in deep waters and may not survive depending on the species.

In captivity, it is best to keep the water depth at a level of 2 to 3 times the length of the turtle’s upper shell. The depth should be shallower if the turtle is still a juvenile. In addition, ageing turtles would also struggle to survive in deep waters for too long.

Can Baby Turtles Swim?

As with the mature turtles, baby turtles too can swim. All turtles hatch on land, and aquatic species head into the water bodies. They are more vulnerable to predators and are also sensitive to the environment. While baby turtles can swim, they can’t swim in deep waters.

If you are getting a pet baby turtle, you need to be more careful than you would with a mature one. Ensure that the water level in the tank is not too deep, and neither is it too shallow.

As a general rule, keep the water level at least an inch deeper than the turtle’s shell width. Such levels ensure that the turtle can swim when it needs to and can easily access the resting or basking spot when it needs to rest.

As the baby turtle matures, they become better at swimming, even in deep waters.

Can A Baby Turtle Drown? 

Yes, a baby turtle can drown. Baby turtles are more susceptible to drowning than mature ones. They don’t have much experience surviving in water, and their bodies are also not as strong.

In captivity, the main reason a baby pet turtle might drown is being unable to reach the basking spot. The inability to do so would mean that the baby turtle spends the entire time in water and doesn’t get to rest. Tiredness will make the baby turtle drown. Ensure that the basking spot is easily accessible by the baby turtle within the aquarium.

A baby turtle may also drown if the water levels are too deep. They are still inexperienced in swimming, and thus, deep waters are not ideal for their survival.

The baby turtle may also get stuck and panic leading to oxygen depletion in the body. Accidental slips into the water where the baby turtle lands, laying upside down also increase the chances of the turtle drowning, especially if unable to flip back to an upright position.

How Do Baby Turtles Learn To Swim? 

Turtle species that swim are born knowing how to swim. They do not need to be taught how to do so. Aquatic baby turtles hatch with flippers and a streamlined body ready to swim.

When sea turtles hatch, they crawl on the beach and follow the natural light horizon found over the ocean. Once there, they will swim in the waters but not too deep as they are still sensitive.

Can A Turtle Drown?

Aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles hardly drown when swimming. However, this does not mean that they can’t drown. They have proper adaptations for moving and surviving in water that make the chances of them drowning negligible.

Even so, a turtle might drown in water if it gets stuck underwater for long. Such a scenario would mean that the turtle stays beneath the water for long hours and is thus unable to come afloat to breathe.

A turtle may also drown if its limbs are stuck deep in the waters and the turtle panics. Panic and agitation will make the turtle use the oxygen in the body leading to quick depletion. As a result, the turtle will risk the toxic lactic acid buildup due to anaerobic respiration. If not rescued, the turtle will shortly die of asphyxiation.

Panic can also make the turtle start breathing underwater instead of holding their breath. Such would make water enter their lungs, leading to anoxia, and the turtle might die.

Another scenario under which a turtle might drown is if it accidentally slips and flips in the water, and the turtle cannot get back up on its own. The hard-shelled reptile may also drown if it swims far in search of basking spots and, in the process, suffer fatigue. Lack of energy to swim can also make a turtle drown.

It is worth noting that the land-dwelling turtle species will drown when put in water unless the water is stagnant and they are lucky to drift to the shores.

If you find a drowning turtle, immediately remove it from water while holding it upright. If you hold it downward, you will be reducing the chances of its survival. Next, ascertain that the turtle is alive by poking its protrusions and seeing if it tries to retract. Retracting is a natural defense instinct in turtles that they exhibit even in the blink of death.

You should move the turtle’s limbs to attempt to remove the water in its lungs and mouth and help the animal start breathing. Oxygen is necessary to prevent anaerobic respiration from taking place as it leads to the production of lactic acid that is toxic to the turtle.

Once you perform first aid, you should call an exotic vet or a turtle rescue centre to ensure that the reptile gets a medical examination to confirm that its body is functioning well.

How Long Does It Take For A Turtle To Drown?

The duration a turtle may take before drowning depends on several factors and may vary from a few minutes to several hours.

For instance, sea turtles that are not in motion can hold breath for up to 7 hours beneath the water. As such, it would take them longer to drown. On the other hand, red-eared sliders can only hold their breath underwater for around one hour, after which they may start to drown if unable to come to the surface of the water to breathe.

Age is also a contributing factor. Baby turtles and the ageing ones may not last as long as other turtles of the same species would before drowning.

In captivity, most pet turtles stay underwater for about half an hour before coming to the surface to breathe. As such, they would take longer than half an hour to drown, especially if they don’t panic or grow agitated.

Can A Turtle Drown Itself?

A turtle will hardly drown itself. Even when stuck underwater or when extremely tired and its body starts to drown, the turtle will struggle to survive. Their instincts are great, and they can tell when their surroundings are changing, and there is a risk of drowning. As such, a turtle can’t drown itself; drowning in these reptiles will occur as an accident or due to circumstances out of the turtle’s control.

Can Red-Eared Sliders Drown? 

Most turtles, including the red-eared species, spend a significant time in the water. While red eared sliders enjoy swimming, they too can drown under certain circumstances. It applies to all turtles as no turtle can breathe underwater.

Red-eared sliders, as with all other turtles, need oxygen to survive. They may hold their breath underwater for 30 – 45 minutes, but they will eventually come to the water surface to breathe. Unlike fish, turtles lack the mechanism to breathe in water.

 Baby red eared sliders and older ones have a shorter ability to breathe as they will not last more than 15 minutes before coming to the water surface for more air.

If the living conditions are right in the enclosure, a red-eared slider is less likely to drown. They make good swimmers and have a better chance of escaping an avoidable drowning predicament.

If you notice that your pet red-eared slider has been motionless for a long duration, it might be best to poke it with a blunt object to ascertain that it is not dead.

Can Turtles Drown?

Turtles do not breathe underwater. Therefore, they can drown. However, they can hold their breath underwater for up to several hours, which reduces the chances of drowning.

Mature turtles breathe on water surfaces or float on the edges to maintain ideal oxygen levels in their bodies. Even though turtles are less likely to die from drowning, they might get sick if they remain in the water for too long. Turtles cannot dry their own body and require a heat source.

This heat source is the sun in the wild, but they require a basking spot for drying in captivity. Without effective shell drying, your turtle might develop illnesses such as shell rot or shedding, which can be costly to treat.

It is important to note that the turtles referred here are aquatic and semi-aquatic species. As for tortoises, they will drown when in water, and if not rescued quickly.


Turtles make interesting species, and they are some of the oldest living creatures. They need effective care, and knowing a turtle’s swimming patterns and capabilities can help you give your pet a better, more fulfilling life. In addition, it can help you save a turtle in the wild.

We trust that we have answered your questions on turtles swimming abilities, whether they can drown and how to protect your pet turtle from drowning.

Recent Posts