Can All Turtles Swim? What You May Not Expect

There are approximately 356 different species of turtle. They can be found over every continent except Antarctica, and live in both salt and freshwater environments. A group of turtles is amongst the oddest of animal group names, known as a ‘bale of turtles’, but can all turtles swim.

In this article, we are going to go into detail about how well turtles can swim, and which species are poor or strong swimmers. How fast, how far, or how deep turtles can swim is all very dependent on which species they are… Read on to find out more. 

Can All Turtles Swim?

All but one type of turtle can swim, the odd one out being the tortoise. Both turtles and tortoises come from the family order Testudines’, and are from the same subclass, Anapsid. However, the main difference between the two that divides their swimming abilities is that turtles have flippers, and tortoises have feet. 

The two species look very similar and can often be confused by people. It’s common that people will mistake a tortoise for a baby turtle and try to save them by throwing them back into the water. In reality, this act of kindness is actually a cruelty, as it’s very unlikely that a tortoise can survive this thrust into the ocean. 

At best, a tortoise will be able to float on the surface, and if they’re lucky, they will hit land and be able to crawl back up. Although unfortunately, any prolonged duration in deep or strong water and the tortoise will tire and sink.

Although turtles spend most of their lives in the water (with males in particular sometimes never going onto land), they are not born in the water. Baby turtles can swim; however, they are weaker and more fragile, and cannot cope with the same waters as adult turtles. 

If you are raising baby turtles, the water depth should be about twice as deep as they are long, then, increase the depth as they grow. 

How Fast Can Turtles Swim?

Generally, turtles are not particularly fast swimmers. Known as the reptiles of the sea, turtles normally cruise around at a leisurely pace. Different species of turtle can travel at different paces. 

The average speed for sea turtles to travel in water, regularly, is between 0.9mph and 5.8pmh. On land, they can travel at a little over 1mph. For comparison, this makes them only slightly faster than sloths when not in water. When sea turtles are startled or frightened, they have been recorded to reach speeds of 22mph in water. 

The leatherback sea turtles are the fastest and largest of all the turtle species. They can dive as deep as a whale, reaching depths of up to 4,000 feet, and are the world’s fastest-growing reptile. The maximum speed they can swim at in water is 35mph.

On the other hand side of the scale, tortoises are the slowest species of turtle. Even on land, the giant Galapagos tortoise is slower than the sea turtle, with an average speed of 0.16mph. 

Turtles use currents to travel and find prey, this is when they can reach their fastest swimming pace. Often, sea turtles are strong enough swimmers to go against the current. They do this to prevent themselves from being swept towards the shore. 

Sea turtles will travel many miles between their nesting grounds and feeding grounds. Sea turtles can travel almost 2000 miles in less than a month, going against the current. 

Why Is My Turtle Struggling To Swim?

There are a few reasons why your turtle may be struggling to swim. Although turtles are not purely aquatic reptiles, swimming is still something that comes naturally to them. In the wild, when a turtle is having difficulties swimming, it will generally be caused by illness or injury. 

Being in shallow water for too long

Sometimes, if you’ve kept your turtle in an environment where they’ve only had exposure to shallow water, over time they can forget how to swim properly in deeper water.

The best way to adjust your turtle to deeper water levels is to introduce them gradually. Don’t put them in depths that they will not be able to manage and swim successfully in. Instead, increase the water level by a couple of inches at a time, then leave it at that level for a few days to allow your turtle time to get used to it. 


Your turtle struggling to swim can be a sign of illness, injury, or end of life. A common illness for turtles is respiratory infections. Just like humans, turtles can catch colds. Except in a turtle’s case, it is much more serious. If these infections are left untreated, the turtle will most likely die. 

If you sense that your turtle is suffering from a respiratory infection (RI), you should take them to the vet immediately. 

Likewise, if you notice that your turtle is heavy on one side, also known as ‘listing’, then this can be very serious. It is generally a sign that your turtle has pneumonia and one of its lungs is beginning to fill up with water. 

Problems with the water (temperature/chlorine/ammonia)

It is very important that you have your tank at the correct temperature and water quality. Different species will need their tank to be set at certain temperatures. If the water is too hot or too cold, your turtle may swim around frantically, trying to find a spot of water at the correct temperature.

Having chlorine in the water will not kill your turtle, however, it may irritate their eyes so much that they no longer want to enter the water. On the other hand, if the ammonia level is too concentrated, your turtle could become sick or even die. The best way to solve this is to have a water conditioner and test the water every 2 weeks.

Can Turtles Swim In Deep Water?

Aquatic or semi-aquatic species of turtle can swim in deep waters. They are adapted to it and can swim for longer durations at a higher density. Non-aquatic turtles will not be able to swim in waters that are too deep. For example, the box turtle. If a box is placed in water that is too deep for them, they will simply sink to the bottom and sit down. 

Box turtles come from a line of American pond turtles, and although they can swim, they are much more comfortable on land. When a box turtle is living in tank conditions, the water should be provided for drinking and soaking purposes, rather than swimming. Other turtles that are poor swimmers include; the spotted turtle and the musk turtle. 

On average, sea turtles can swim at a depth of around 950ft, however, the leatherback can dive the deepest of all marine animals reaching depths of up to 4000ft. Some of the other best swimming turtles include; the loggerhead turtle, the green sea turtle, and the hawksbill sea turtle. 

As long as your pet turtle has easily accessible places to get out of the water and back onto land, it shouldn’t have much trouble with reaching the basking area. In general, the rule of water depth for turtles is 2 or 3 times the length of their shell. Of course, this can vary between species. 

Can Turtles Drown?

Turtles do not have gills like other aquatics. They breathe through lungs, the same way humans do, and therefore cannot breathe underwater. This means that turtles can drown. Although turtles’ lungs are much smaller than humans’, they are still very powerful. 

Turtles have adaptations that allow them to stay underwater for extended periods of time without having to come up for air. They can also absorb small amounts of oxygen without needing to physically breathe.

This works by moving water across their outer shell and scales, which contain red blood cells. The cells can hold small amounts of oxygen and intake it to the turtle. However, the amount of oxygen this provides is very minimal, and is only effective when the turtle is in a resting state, similar to hibernation.  

With this method, a sea turtle is able to hold its breath underwater from anywhere between 4 to 7 hours. If the turtle is swimming, it would only be able to stay underwater for up to 5 minutes before needing to come up for air. 

Freshwater turtles can hold their breath underwater for a significantly shorter period. On average, freshwater turtles can stay underwater in a resting state for around 45 minutes up to 1 hour. 

How Do Turtles Drown?

How likely a turtle is to drown is very dependent on species and circumstance. Some turtles are excellent swimmers and would be able to swim in strong currents and in deep waters, others can not. 

In the wild, many reported cases of turtles drowning are caused by humans. Getting caught in fishing nets or amongst disposed of waste that prevents the turtle from getting back up to the surface. As pets, turtles can sometimes drown if the water level is not deep enough and they get stuck on their back. If the water is too shallow, they will have difficulty flipping themselves over. 

Turtles are very intelligent and will very rarely drown. The most common way for a turtle to drown is by not having a basking spot to get back up to the surface. In this case, they will continue swimming around and eventually tire themselves out and drown. 

For turtles that are comfortable with water, such as loggerheads, painted turtles, and red-eared sliders, they have a very low risk of drowning. These species are aquatic and used to unpredictable waters. Loggerheads have even been recorded to stay underwater for as long as 10 hours. 

Non-aquatic species such as the box turtle, tortoise, and mud turtle are all at higher risk of drowning and will tire out faster.


In general, aquatic turtles are strong swimmers and can dive at deeper levels than freshwater turtles can. Turtles are typically leisurely swimmers, much like they are on land. In fact, on land, they actually mirror a sloth-like appearance. 

Like us humans, turtles breathe through their lungs. Since they do not have gills as other aquatic animals do, they have the potential to drown. Although turtles partially live in water, with some sea turtles spending 90% of their lives in water, in harsh or man-made circumstances, turtles can drown. 

If you intend to have a turtle as a pet, it is important to look up the specific requirements for your chosen species, as they will require different water levels, temperatures, and conditions. 

Can All Turtles Swim? What You May Not Expect

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