Can Turtles Drown?

When you think of aquatic reptiles, turtles are probably one of the first names that come to mind.

Since a lot of them spend their entire lives in or around water, you might think that a turtle drowning sounds a bit silly. Unfortunately, turtles can and do drown.

Let’s discuss why.

All Turtles Can Drown

Yes, turtles can drown as they are oxygen-breathing reptiles and have lungs. Neither sea turtles nor land turtles can breathe underwater.

Even sea and freshwater species need to surface at regular intervals to fill their lungs with air. There are 330 species of freshwater turtles, seven species of sea turtles, and 49 species of land turtles. And they all breathe air.

Although water turtles live in or around bodies of water, they are not to be confused with amphibians who can live in both environments seamlessly. Reptiles, such as turtles, crocodiles, lizards, etc., are terrestrial creatures, even if some have adapted very well to a wet habitat. Land turtles, or tortoises, have developed their own specificities that do not allow them to live in water. 

Most species of turtles do spend their lives in and under the water, while some never leave the land.

Can all turtles swim?

Marine turtles obviously can swim, and they do so very well, seeming to glide underwater. On the contrary, their terrestrial cousins are not so well adapted for aquatic life. Tortoises have bent legs with claws not very practical for swimming but most suitable for walking on land. That being said, a tortoise could float and survive a short stay in the water until it can safely reach a shore. 

Seawater turtles have flippers that propel them gracefully in the water but force them to drag themselves on the ground. Freshwater turtles have webbed feet, which seems to be the best compromise.

How long can turtles hold their breath?

Tortoises can hold their breath for a long time and have to do so every time they hide within their shell since they have to empty their lungs first. They can hold their breath underwater for about 20 minutes, although it is believed that they would be able to for up to 24 hours. Since they cannot swim, no studies can tell for sure.

Sea turtles are exceptionally well adapted to their aquatic life and can remain submerged for hours before needing to resurface for air. Some species have been reported to stay underwater for as long as ten hours.

Here are some examples for a few species:

SpeciesHow Long They Can Hold Their Breath
Red Eared Slider30 – 35 Minutes
Loggerhead Sea Turtle> 10 Hours
Diamondback Terrapin45 Minutes – 5 Hours
Mata Mata35 Minutes on Average

Why don’t sea and freshwater turtles drown while sleeping?

Different species of turtles sleep for various lengths of time and in diverse surroundings. One common trait is that while sleeping, they can slow down their metabolism and use as little energy as possible. Their activity level is null, and they use little oxygen during these rest periods. That allows them to stay underwater for hours, whether in a shallow pond or a coral reef. 

Regardless, they will still come to the surface to breathe at some point. They will then gently sink back down to resume sleeping.

How long would it take for a turtle to drown?

You probably think it would depend on the turtle, but the answer is not as simple as you might imagine. Would it be, let’s say, 30 minutes for a tortoise and hours for a sea turtle? Well, not quite. In most cases, it probably will only take about ten minutes for a turtle, regardless of species, to drown. 

A scared and frantic turtle caught in a fishing net and fighting to set itself free will quickly go through its reserve of oxygen. The amount that otherwise would allow it to stay underwater for hours will disappear in mere minutes. This is the same reason why dolphins and whales drown when caught in fishing nets.

Could a turtle drown itself?

No, however, during mating, accidental drownings do happen. The male climbs onto the female and uses its claws to hang on to the female’s shell. He can hang on for up to 24 hours to keep other males from mating with her. The female has to swim around with the extra weight during this ordeal. She needs the strength to carry them both up to the surface to breathe. 

Other males will try to disrupt the process, lengthening it and adding stress to the female. She sometimes can become too weak to resurface and will drown. So no, a turtle will not commit suicide, but a male might accidentally cause the female to drown.