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Can Turtles Swim?

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Turtles are loveable creatures that come in different forms, and there is much to know about this species. One thing which seems to always come into question is whether these creatures can swim.

In this article, we will be answering this question as well as exploring more about turtles.

A turtle swimming underwater

Can Turtles Swim?

It is easy for people to question a turtle’s ability to swim. With so many types of turtles out there – land turtles, sea turtles, snapping turtles, etc. – the facts can become blurred.

So, can turtles swim? Yes, they can! There are several types of turtles that have been known to swim. The first type is the freshwater turtle or “land” turtle. These include:

  • Common Turtle
  • Eastern Box Turtle
  • Green Sea Turtle
  • Loggerhead Turtle
  • Olive Ridley Turtle

The second type of turtle is the saltwater turtle. This includes:

  • American Alligator Snapping Turtle
  • Chinese Softshell Turtle
  • Indian Pond Turtle
  • Japanese Pond Turtle
  • Korean Pond Turtle

How Do Turtles Swim?

Turtles are natural swimmers, so this ability is easy for them. Because of the turtle’s webbed feet, they are able to use these as paddles to push themselves along in the water.

They also have flippers that help propel them through the water. If you look at a turtle swimming, it looks like they are just floating in the water. However, if you watch closely, you will see how their legs move back and forth.

There is an assumption that turtles use their tails for swimming; however, this is incorrect. Whilst this may seem accurate, not using their tail does not prevent them from swimming. 

Instead, these strong muscular tails allow for steady balance. Although better for balancing when on land, it can be argued that balance is also helpful for them swimming when in water (though this is not a necessity).

Furthermore, you may also see some turtles swimming backwards!

How Long Can Turtles Stay Underwater?

This depends on the individual species. Some turtles can stay underwater for up to 30 minutes whilst others only last 5-10 minutes. It is important to note that the length of time a turtle stays underwater varies depending on its species.

As mentioned above, some turtles can stay underwater for long periods of time. The longest recorded time was by a loggerhead turtle who stayed submerged for over 3 hours.

This record lasted until the turtle died due to exhaustion. Another example is the green sea turtle which has been known to stay underwater for around 15 minutes.

However, other turtles cannot stay underwater for long periods. For instance, the common turtle has been found to stay underwater for no longer than 10 minutes. The average duration for this species is between 2-5 minutes.

Can Turtles Breathe Underwater?

To many people’s surprise, turtles cannot actually breathe underwater. Turtles are simply able to stay in the water for long periods of time, an ability which they have evolved to be able to do.

When a turtle dives into the water, it takes in air through its mouth and nose. Once inside the body, the oxygen travels to all parts of the body and then exhales back out again.

Although this process works fine for most animals, there are certain exceptions. For instance, fish have gills that allow them to take in fresh water and expel waste.

In addition, sharks have gills that allow them to breathe in and out of the water.

However, despite being able to breathe in and out of the ocean, turtles are unable to do this. Therefore, they must surface every few minutes to breathe.

Although turtles cannot breathe underwater, they are still able to survive without breathing in for a while. This is because they can hold their breath for long periods and even sleep while holding their breath.

Can Turtles Drown?

Turtles are vulnerable to drowning. This is mainly because of their inability to breathe underwater.

As stated earlier, turtles must come to the surface every few minutes to breathe air. If they were to remain in the water for too long, they would eventually drown.

If a turtle is caught in shallow waters, it could easily escape. However, if the water gets deeper, the chances of survival decrease.

Furthermore, if a turtle is caught in deep waters, it will struggle to get out. This is because the pressure increases as the depth increase.

Tip: read our article: ‘Can Turtles Sleep In Water?

How Fast Can Turtles Swim?

A turtle swimming in the ocean

The speed at which a turtle swims depends on its size and weight. Smaller turtles tend to move faster than larger ones. Furthermore, smaller turtles are usually more agile and therefore can swim much faster than large turtles.

For instance, the common Snapping Turtle can reach speeds of up to 12 mph. Another example is the Softshell Turtle.

Despite being slow on land and carrying heavier shells, this species of turtle is actually very fast in the water, swimming at speeds of up to 15mph.

However, when it comes to the fastest turtle out there, the crown has to go to the Leatherback Sea Turtle. This turtle has an incredible swimming speed of 22mph.

Is There A Difference Between Turtles and Sea Turtles?

Yes! Although both sea turtles and turtles belong to the same group of reptiles called Testudines, they are not exactly the same.

While turtles are aquatic reptiles that live on land, sea turtles are marine reptiles that live in the sea.

Furthermore, although both types of turtles share similar characteristics, they also differ from each other.

One major difference is how sea turtles have flippers, whereas turtles do not – this has an impact on their swimming abilities.

Can Sea Turtles Breathe Underwater?

Just like the turtle, sea turtles cannot breathe underwater. However, that does not mean that they cannot hold their breath.

Amazingly, the sea turtle can stay underwater for as long as 7 hours at a time, adopting incredible breathing abilities which a turtle cannot compare to.

This is due to the fact that sea turtles have two different ways of breathing: one way is through their mouth, and another is through their nostrils.

The first method allows them to breathe in and out quickly, whereas the second method allows them to breathe slowly.

Can A Tortoise Swim?

Although tortoises are not true reptiles, they are often mistaken as such. They are part of the order of Testudines, which includes turtles and lizards.

These animals are known for their ability to adapt to any environment and thrive in difficult conditions.

Tortoises are found all over the world, including in Australia, Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and even Antarctica.

In terms of swimming ability, these creatures cannot swim. It is often that people become confused by this fact, and this is because of two reasons: turtles and tortoises are very similar, and tortoises are sometimes seen in the water.

Tortoises cannot swim, but they can drift in the water.

Why Can’t A Tortoise Swim?

A tortoise in the water

The tortoise and the turtle are so similar – why can’t they swim? The answer to this question is very simple, as it all comes down to their features.

Flippers And Feet

Both turtles and tortoises have four limbs; however, only turtles have flippers. As mentioned earlier, tortoises are unable to swim, hence the lack of flippers. However, tortoises can float around in the water.


Turtles are much bigger than tortoises, and in turn, their size makes them more suited for swimming.

This point goes hand in hand with the size and shape of their shells too. Turtles are known for having a light shell which is made for the sea.

Tortoises, on the other hand, carry much thicker and heavier shells which are not suited for swimming. A shell like this will simply not work in the water.

Can All Turtles Swim? And If So, Which Ones?

Yes, all turtles can swim (not including tortoises). There are many species of turtles across the globe; however, it is sea turtles who perform the best when it comes to swimming. 

Some of those sea turtles include: Green Sea Turtles, Leatherback Sea Turtles, Hawksbill Sea Turtles, Loggerhead Sea Turtles, Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles, Olive Ridley Sea Turtles, Pacific Green Sea Turtles, and Flatback Sea Turtles.

These are just a few species of turtles that you can find in the wild today. Although there are many more species of turtles, many of them are endangered.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Turtles Drown While Swimming?

This all depends on the type of turtle we are talking about.

For general turtles, their chances of drowning in water are higher than a sea turtle’s as they cannot hold their breath for as long.

However, with this said, it is still rare for a turtle to drown because of their extensive abilities.

How Do Turtles Breathe Underwater?

As stated earlier, turtles have two different methods of breathing: one is through their mouths, and the other is through their nostrils or snout.

The first method allows turtles to breathe in and out quickly, whereas using the second method allows them to take longer breaths.

Where Do Turtles Live?

Turtle habitats vary from region to region. Most turtles live in warm tropical waters such as the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic Ocean, and Pacific Ocean.

Can Sea Turtles Survive On Land?

Sea turtles are able to survive on land if they need to. They can also crawl onto land to lay eggs. However, most turtles prefer to stay in the ocean because it is where they belong.

Final Thoughts

Turtles are amazing creatures and although they may look small, they are actually quite large.

Their ability to adapt to any environment is what sets them apart from other animals. It is these traits that make turtles unique and special.

In this article, we have discovered how special turtles truly are. Their ability to hold their breath for hours at a time and adapt to a sea creature’s life without breathing underwater is incredible.

This is something that truly makes them different and a creature worth loving.

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About the author


Kerry White is an avid dog lover and writer, knowing all there is to know about our furry friends. Kerry has been writing for PetDT for three years now, wanting to use her knowledge for good and share everything she can with new dog owners.Kerry has two dogs herself - a German shepherd called Banjo and a chocolate labrador called Buttons. Kerry knows more than anyone how adjusting to new life with a puppy can turn your life upside down, and she wants to ease some of the burdens through her articles.