Can Tortoise Swim? The Facts!

Despite their resemblance to turtles, these land reptiles aren’t naturals in the water due to their unique physiology and lifestyle.

So if you ever wondered, “can tortoise swim?” then in this article, I’ll dive deep into understanding why most species of tortoises can’t swim but manage to float.

I will provide valuable safety tips for keeping your shell-clad friends safe around water bodies.

Key Takeaways

  • Tortoises cannot swim like turtles due to their unique physiology and lifestyle.
  • Their high – domed shells and sturdy feet are not designed for navigating water.
  • While some tortoises can float momentarily, they do not have the ability to propel themselves through water like aquatic turtles.

Can Tortoise Swim?

Yes, tortoises can swim, but they are not as proficient in swimming as aquatic turtles and are better adapted for a terrestrial lifestyle.

The idea of a swimming tortoise often perplexes many due to the familiar sight of turtles gliding seamlessly underwater.

However, unlike their close relatives, turtles who have light streamlined shells and webbed feet that help them propel through the water with ease, tortoises don’t share this ability.

Their evolutionary journey has led them towards life on land, shaping their physiology distinctly different from that of their aquatic counterparts.

Endowed with sturdy feet and high-domed shells not designed for navigating vast stretches of water or long duration submerged in it; tortoises cannot swim even though certain species can float to an extent.

The desert tortoise is a classic example where they wallow in shallow water rather than swim.

This makes drowning a serious risk if a pet tortoise is thrown into deep waters as these adorable reptiles are unable to hold their breath underwater for extended periods like some freshwater turtles do.

Why Tortoises Can’t Swim?

Heavier shells hinder their ability to float and maneuver efficiently.
Limbs adapted for walking on land, not efficient for swimming.
Relatively round and bulky body shape creates more resistance in the water.
Limited lung capacity for prolonged submersion.

The physiology of tortoises is naturally equipped for life on land, not in water.

Unlike their aquatic relatives, the turtles, who have streamlined shells and limbs evolved to propel through the water with ease, tortoises carry a distinct set of features.

These creatures possess high-domed shells that are substantially bulkier and heavier than those of turtles. This bulky shell becomes a disadvantage in water as it hampers buoyancy and balance while swimming.

Additionally, instead of having webbed feet or flippers like that of sea turtles for effective paddling underwater, tortoises have short sturdy legs designed for digging into soil and walking over rough terrains on land.

Their non-webbed digit-like toes are more suitable for gripping onto surfaces rather than pushing against the fluidity of water currents.

On top of these physical traits restricting them from swimming properly or floating efficiently in deep waters is their inability to breathe underwater.

They simply lack this crucial adaptation seen in many aquatic turtle species, making each encounter with large bodies or stretches of water potential drowning hazards for these hard-shelled walkers.

How Tortoises Swim?

Tortoises swim by using a combination of leg movements and controlled buoyancy.

While they are not as proficient in swimming as aquatic turtles, they can still manage to move through water.

Here’s a breakdown of how tortoises swim:

  1. Leg Paddling: Tortoises use their legs to paddle through the water. They extend their legs outward and push against the water to generate propulsion. The movement is similar to a doggy paddle, but less efficient.
  2. Head and Neck Control: Tortoises keep their heads and necks extended above the water surface while swimming. This helps them maintain balance and control their direction.
  3. Buoyancy Control: Tortoises regulate their buoyancy by manipulating air trapped inside their lungs and digestive system. By filling their lungs with air, they increase buoyancy, allowing them to float higher in the water. Conversely, they can expel air to decrease buoyancy and descend in the water column.
  4. Limited Submersion: Tortoises are not well-suited for long periods of submersion. They can hold their breath for varying durations depending on the species, but their lung capacity is limited compared to aquatic turtles. As a result, they typically spend more time at or near the water’s surface rather than fully submerged.

Can Tortoises Float?

Tortoises have a unique ability to float in standstill water.

This is mainly due to the trapped air underneath their shells, which helps them stay buoyant. However, while some tortoises can float, it doesn’t mean they can swim like aquatic turtles.

Most tortoises are not adapted for life in water and cannot propel themselves through it like their aquatic counterparts.

Unlike sea turtles, tortoises lack the streamlined shape of their shells and do not have flippers or webbed feet to help them navigate through water.

Their bodies are specifically designed for life on land, with heavy shells and sturdy limbs that make swimming difficult for them.

While there may be rare exceptions like the leopard tortoise that can paddle its legs and be considered as swimming, this ability is not common among most species of tortoises.

Therefore, even though some tortoises may briefly float due to trapped air under their shells, they are not natural swimmers and should never be placed in deep water as it could lead to drowning or other hazards.

Tortoise owners must prioritize keeping these land reptiles safe from entering bodies of water where they may be at risk.

Can Tortoise Drawn?

Yes, a tortoise can drown if it is submerged underwater for an extended period of time and is unable to reach the surface to breathe.

While tortoises are adapted to survive in semi-aquatic environments and can swim, they are not designed for prolonged underwater activity. Tortoises have lungs and breathe air, so if they are unable to access the surface to breathe, they can drown.

While they can hold their breath for a certain period, the exact duration can vary depending on the species, size, and overall health of the tortoise.

On average, a healthy tortoise can hold its breath underwater for several minutes, typically ranging from 5 to 10 minutes. However, it’s important to note that this is a general estimate, and individual tortoises may have different capacities.

It’s important to provide tortoises with appropriate water sources that allow them to access both land and water areas to prevent drowning incidents.

Safety Tips for Tortoises around Water

  • Provide a shallow water dish for your tortoise, with no more than an inch of water.
  • Use a low yet wide dish to prevent drowning and ensure easy access for your tortoise.
  • Keep your tortoise away from swimming pools, ponds, or other deep bodies of water to prevent accidents.
  • Avoid placing your tortoise in water if it is found in the wild, as it may not be accustomed to water and could become stressed or drown.
  • Prevent upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) by keeping the water dish clean and free of contaminants.
  • Be cautious when introducing your tortoise to water for hydration purposes, as they can only float or swim temporarily due to their heavy weight.


While turtles are natural swimmers, tortoises are not built for a life in water.

Their anatomy and physiology make it difficult for them to swim effectively. Tortoises may be able to float or drift in water, but they cannot swim like their aquatic counterparts.

It’s important to understand the differences between turtles and tortoises to ensure the proper care and safety of these creatures in their respective habitats.


1. Can tortoises swim?

Yes, tortoises can swim. Although they are not as strong swimmers as turtles, they are capable of swimming and can paddle through water using their legs.

2. Do tortoises have shells?

Yes, tortoises have shells that serve as their protective covering. The shell is composed of two parts, the carapace on their back and the plastron on their underside.

3. Are tortoises similar to turtles?

Yes, turtles and tortoises belong to the same reptile group known as Testudines. Both share certain characteristics like having a shell, but tortoises differ in that they primarily live on land rather than in water.

4. Can tortoises drown underwater?

No, tortoises cannot drown as they are able to hold their breath underwater for extended periods of time. However, they are not adapted to living in water like aquatic turtles or sea turtles.

5. Can tortoises drink water?

Yes, tortoises need water to survive and they drink water regularly to stay hydrated. Although they can obtain some moisture from their food, they still require access to fresh drinking water.

6. Can baby tortoises swim?

Yes, baby tortoises are generally capable of swimming just like adult tortoises. They may not be as proficient, but they can navigate through shallow water if necessary.

7. Can tortoises live in water?

Unlike turtles, tortoises are not adapted to living in water for extended periods of time. While they may occasionally enter shallow water, their natural habitat is usually centered on land rather than in bodies of water.

8. Do tortoises float in water?

Tortoises can float in water due to their ability to trap air within their lungs and within spaces in their body. This buoyancy enables them to stay afloat when in water.

9. Can you have a pet tortoise?

Yes, tortoises can be kept as pets. However, it is important to provide them with an environment that mimics their natural habitat and meets their specific needs, such as appropriate temperature, shelter, and diet.

10. Can desert tortoises live without water?

Desert tortoises are adapted to arid environments and have the ability to survive long by conserving water but they still require access to water sources to survive.

About David Nitta

I am a lifelong lover of turtles and have dedicated years of research to understand and care about this wonderful creature. I regularly post blogs, mostly from what I read and my own experience, covering everything from turtle care, health, feeding habits, habitat setup, and so much more.