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Home > Turtles > Can Turtles Swim? Facts, Common Issues & Safety Tips

Can Turtles Swim? Facts, Common Issues & Safety Tips

Red eared slider turtle under water

As turtles become more common as pets around the United States, many new (and experienced) turtle owners have questions about the fascinating reptiles. One of the most common is whether turtles can swim. Yes, turtles can and do swim, and most are very adept at the ability.

If you’re looking for facts and information about turtles to become a better pet parent and keep them safe while in your care, the information below is just for you! Turtles might be slow, but the following article is a fast read that will provide useful answers to all your turtle swimming questions!


Can All Turtles Swim?

According to our research, all turtle species can swim since they live in or around the water and need the skill to survive. Some turtles spend most of their lives in the water, swimming around most of the day and often diving deep to find food. Other turtle species spend time on the land and in the water and prefer more shallow water when swimming.

How Do Turtles Swim?

Like us, turtles use their hands, arms, legs, and feet to swim, but they have a distinct advantage: webbed feet. The webbing, like swim fins used by divers, helps turtles move around when in and under the water.

When turtles swim, they use all four legs. Some, like the Red-Eared Slider, extend their legs when swimming. Others, like the Green Sea turtle, always have their legs out of their shell and move them back and forth to propel themselves when swimming.

Red Eared Slider Turtle in an aquarium
Image Credit: DiPres, Shutterstock

Can Baby Turtles Swim?

When they hatch, baby turtles can do everything they need to survive, including swimming. Baby sea turtles, for example, will crawl from their nest in the sand and go directly into the ocean. There they will immediately begin swimming around like pros and looking for food (if they make it that far without getting eaten by a predator).

All species of turtles are innate swimmers, which means it is something they can do without being taught. It’s part of who they are, like a newborn baby being able to cry when hungry or a newborn gazelle being able to walk and run.

divider-turtle What Can Cause a Turtle to Have Problems Swimming?

If you have a pet turtle that’s struggling to swim, it’s usually a sign that something isn’t right, whether with your turtle or their environment. Let’s take a look at a few of the reasons your turtle might have trouble swimming.

1. Water Level Issues

Some species are equipped to dive into deeper water to hunt for food, while others stick to more shallow water. If you have a shallow-swimming turtle in a deep water enclosure or a deep-diving turtle in a shallow tank, either situation can cause stress for your turtle. If kept in shallow water long enough, some turtles might even forget how to swim.

2. Illnesses

An Illness can cause your turtle to have problems swimming, especially respiratory infections and pneumonia. The former can make it difficult for your turtle to breathe in the water, while the latter can cause your turtle to “list.”

Listing is when pneumonia causes one of your turtle’s lungs to fill with water, which will then cause it to tilt to one side or the other, depending on which lung is affected. Both respiratory infections and pneumonia are serious health issues that should be treated by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

3. Water Quality and Temperature Issues

Most turtles can handle a range of temperatures, but if the water in their enclosure is too hot or too cold, it can cause swimming issues for your pet. For example, if the water is too hot, your turtle may not go into the water, and if it’s too cold, they may be listless and stiff when trying to swim or spend their time frantically trying to find water that’s the correct temperature.

The same goes for water that’s dirty or chlorinated. Extremely dirty water in a turtle’s enclosure can make it difficult to see when swimming, and too much chlorine can do the same, albeit for a different reason. Dirty water affects visibility, and chlorinated water affects their eyes.

Veterinarians recommend using a water testing device to regularly check the water in your turtle’s tank to ensure the chlorine and other chemical levels are safe for your reptile.

Big Bend slider turtle close up
Image Credit: Odvojeni Ferid, Shutterstock


Can a Turtle Drown?

Turtles can drown, but it doesn’t happen frequently. Like us, turtles have lungs to breathe air and take in oxygen. Although much smaller than ours, a turtle’s lungs are incredibly powerful, allowing them to stay underwater for long periods.

Turtles also breathe through their shells and scutes. They have red blood cells that absorb oxygen in the water while they swim, albeit in very small quantities.

Turtles usually drown due to human causes, especially getting stuck in nets, as sea turtles often do. Some turtles choke on plastic waste in the ocean, lakes, and rivers. A turtle can also drown if it can’t find a spot to get out of the water for a while and bask in the sun for warmth and Vitamin D. In that situation, it will swim so long that it becomes exhausted and drowns.

divider-turtle How To Ensure Your Turtle Stays Safe when Swimming

If you have a pet turtle and want to ensure they stay safe while in the enclosure, the following tips and advice will come in handy.

Use an Adequate Water Filtration System

Keeping the water in your turtle’s tank clean is one of your most important tasks as a turtle owner. A quality filter that uses activated charcoal is essential. It’s also recommended to change the water in their tank frequently. Changing 25% of the water once a week and the entire tank’s water once a month will keep the water clean.

Provide Adequate Water Levels

Some turtles dive deep, while others stick closer to the surface and prefer shallow water. If you’re unsure which situation fits your turtle species, ask your veterinarian for advice. The correct water level can make all the difference for your pet turtle.

Provide a Space to Get Out of the Water

Even though they swim like champions, most pet turtles need to get out of the water occasionally and relax, bask, and recharge their body’s batteries. Providing that space is critical to your turtle’s health and welfare. Veterinarians recommend that ⅔ of your turtle’s enclosure or tank is water while the other ⅓ is a dry platform where they can get out of the water and bask under a UV lamp.

red ear slider water turtle in water tank
Image Credit: Mehdi Photos, Shutterstock

Be Sure to Keep Your Turtle’s Enclosure Safe

Many owners put plants, driftwood, and other items in their turtle’s tanks to give them something to eat and swim around. It’s critical that all of these items not be too large so that your turtle won’t get trapped underwater and drown.

Don’t Clean Your Turtle’s Tank With Detergents or Soap

Cleaning your turtle’s tank should be done once a month when you change the water, but you should never use soaps or detergents since they can harm your pet. Instead, use a recommended turtle tank cleaner from your local pet store.


Final Thoughts

Turtles are born swimmers and can hit the water immediately after hatching. It’s an innate ability all turtles have, whether they live in the ocean, a lake, or a pond.

Although turtles can drown, it’s highly unusual and usually due to poor tank conditions or human error like nets and garbage. We hope the information in this article helps you care for your pet turtle and allows them to live a long, healthy life.

Featured Image Credit: Chris Mann, Shutterstock

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