Can Turtles Drown? This Might Surprise You

Yes, surprisingly you might not know that turtles, despite being expert swimmers, can actually drown.

Unlike fish, which extract oxygen from the water using their gills, turtles are equipped with lungs and must surface periodically to breathe.

Drowning typically occurs when a turtle is trapped underwater without access to the surface or when it is unable to reach the surface due to illness, injury, or exhaustion.

In the case of pet turtles, drowning can also result from an inadequate habitat setup, such as a poorly designed basking area or lack of suitable resting spots.

It is essential to provide your pet turtle with a safe environment that allows it to swim freely while having easy access to surfaces where it can rest and breathe.

So, how can Turtles drown? let’s dive in more on this topic.

How Do Turtles Actually Breathe?

The process of respiration in turtles is quite fascinating. As you already know, turtles possess lungs, much like humans, which enable them to breathe in oxygen.

They have a unique muscular system that aids in the process of breathing, and unlike mammals, they don’t have a diaphragm. Instead, turtles utilize muscles attached to their shell and limbs to pump air in and out of their lungs.

When turtles surface for air, they take a fresh breath, which replenishes the oxygen supply in their lungs. They then dive back underwater, and their body uses the stored oxygen to carry out various metabolic processes.

During this time, they expel carbon dioxide, a waste product of respiration, primarily through their lungs, but also, to a lesser extent, through their skin and the lining of their mouth and throat.

In addition to breathing through their lungs, turtles can also breathe through their cloaca (some people refer to breathing out of their butt). The cloaca is an opening at the end of the turtle’s body that is used for both reproduction and excretion.

When turtles are underwater, they can absorb oxygen through the lining of their cloaca. This is a less efficient way to breathe, but it can be used in emergencies.

Turtles have a remarkable ability to extract oxygen from water, although it’s not their primary mode of respiration. This process, known as cutaneous respiration, allows them to absorb a small amount of oxygen through specialized blood vessels in their skin, throat lining, and cloacal bursae (an extension of their cloaca).

Cutaneous respiration is particularly helpful when turtles are in low-oxygen environments, such as in stagnant water or when they are hibernating.

Also, turtles can drastically reduce their metabolic rate and oxygen consumption when submerged, especially during periods of rest or hibernation.

This adaptation enables them to stay underwater for extended periods without needing to surface for air but, cutaneous respiration is not sufficient to sustain a turtle indefinitely, and they still need to breathe air using their lungs.

How Long Can Turtles Stay Underwater?

The ability of turtles to stay underwater varies greatly depending on factors such as species, age, and activity level.

Each species of turtle has unique adaptations and characteristics that influence how long they can remain submerged before needing to surface for air.

For instance, younger turtles may need to surface more frequently than adult turtles, as they have smaller lung capacities and higher metabolic rates. Additionally, a turtle’s activity level plays a significant role in determining how long it can stay underwater.

When a turtle is active and swimming, it consumes oxygen more rapidly, which means it will need to surface for air more often. Conversely, when a turtle is resting or sleeping, its metabolic rate slows down, allowing it to conserve oxygen and stay submerged for more extended periods.

Here are some examples of how long different species of turtles can stay underwater:

  1. Green Sea Turtles: These turtles can stay submerged for several hours, sometimes even up to 5 hours, when resting or sleeping. However, when active, they may need to surface every few minutes.
  2. Painted Turtles: These turtles can remain underwater for 20-30 minutes during normal activities. When they hibernate, their metabolic rate decreases significantly, allowing them to stay submerged for several weeks without surfacing for air.
  3. Box Turtles: Being primarily terrestrial, box turtles can’t hold their breath as long as aquatic species. They typically stay underwater for only a few minutes at a time.
  4. Snapping Turtles: These turtles can stay underwater for 40-50 minutes during normal activities. In colder water, their metabolism slows down, enabling them to stay submerged for up to several hours.
  5. Leatherback Sea Turtles: These large turtles can dive to impressive depths and remain submerged for about 85 minutes, although most dives usually last around 30 minutes.

Do Turtles Sleep Underwater?

One last fun fact you might be curious about is whether turtles catch some Z’s underwater. Indeed, these aquatic wonders do sleep underwater!

They can slow down their metabolism and heart rate to conserve oxygen while resting on the bottom of their habitat. Don’t worry, though – they’ll surface for air when needed to stay healthy and happy!

What Common Causes for Turtles to drown?

Despite their aquatic nature, turtles can drown under certain circumstances. Understanding the causes of drowning can help you protect your shelled buddy from potential danger.

Here are some common reasons a turtle might drown:

  1. Inadequate habitat setup: For pet turtles, a poorly designed environment can lead to drowning. Ensure that your turtle has access to both shallow and deeper water, a suitable basking area, and resting spots that allow it to breathe easily.
  2. Obstacles or entanglement: If a turtle gets trapped or entangled in debris, plants, or fishing nets, it might not be able to reach the surface for air, leading to drowning. Keeping your turtle’s environment clean and free from hazards is crucial for its safety.
  3. Exhaustion: Turtles can become exhausted if they struggle to find a resting spot or have to swim against a strong current for an extended period. This fatigue can make it difficult for them to reach the surface for air, resulting in drowning.
  4. Illness or injury: A sick or injured turtle might be too weak to swim to the surface to breathe, increasing the risk of drowning. If you suspect your turtle is unwell or injured, consult a vet or a specialist immediately.
  5. Water temperature: Cold water can slow down a turtle’s metabolism, making it less active and less likely to surface for air. In extreme cases, this could lead to drowning. Ensure that your pet turtle’s water temperature is within the appropriate range for its species.

By understanding the factors that can cause a turtle to drown, you can take preventive measures to ensure your turtle stays safe and healthy in its aquatic environment.

Can You Revive a Drowned Turtle?

While it might be possible to revive a drowned turtle, it’s crucial to act quickly and carefully.

First, remove your turtle from the water and place it on a flat surface with its head slightly lower than its body. Gently extend its neck and hold its mouth open, allowing water to drain out. You can also try performing gentle chest compressions to encourage water expulsion.

After that, immediately take your turtle to a vet or a specialist for further assistance. 

Keep in mind that reviving a drowned turtle is not guaranteed and depends on how long the turtle has been without oxygen.

How Long Does It Take for a Turtle to Drown?

The time it takes for a turtle to drown varies based on factors like species, age, and activity level. Generally, a turtle may start struggling after a few minutes without oxygen, and drowning could occur within 15 minutes to an hour.

Remember, turtles need to surface for air periodically, so ensure their environment allows them to do so.

What Are the Signs That Your Turtle Is Dead or Drowned?

It can be tough to determine whether your turtle is dead, drowned, or just unresponsive. Some signs that might indicate a turtle has died or drowned include:

  1. Lack of movement or response to touch.
  2. No breathing or signs of life.
  3. A foul smell coming from the turtle.
  4. Discoloration of the skin or shell.
  5. Sunken eyes or an overall appearance of dehydration.

Can Baby Turtles Drown?

Yes, baby turtles can drown, just like their adult counterparts. In fact, baby turtles might be more susceptible to drowning due to their smaller size and less developed lungs.

It’s essential to provide a safe and suitable environment for baby turtles, ensuring they have access to shallow water and a secure basking area where they can rest and breathe.

Do Turtles Drown While Sleeping?

You might be wondering if your turtle buddy can drown while catching some Z’s underwater.

The good news is that turtles are pretty amazing at adapting to their environment, even during sleep. When they’re snoozing underwater, they slow down their metabolism and heart rate, which allows them to conserve oxygen. This means they can stay submerged for longer periods without needing to surface for air.

However, they’ll still come up for air when necessary, so you don’t need to worry too much about your turtle friend drowning while sleeping.

Do Turtles Drown During Hibernation?

When turtles hibernate, they burrow into mud, sand, or leaf litter in their aquatic environment. During this time, they lower their metabolism significantly, reducing their oxygen needs.

Since their oxygen consumption is minimal, they can rely on extracting oxygen from the water through their skin and other body parts, a process called cutaneous respiration.

This ability helps them survive underwater during hibernation without having to surface for air.

While turtles are well-adapted to surviving underwater during hibernation, there is still a small risk of drowning if the water quality is poor or oxygen levels are extremely low.

To keep your pet turtle safe during hibernation, ensure its environment is clean and well-maintained, with proper water quality and oxygen levels.

Now, let’s talk specifically about some of the popular  turtle species and if they can drown.

Can Sea Turtles Drown?

The answer is yes, even sea turtles can drown. You might be curious how sea turtles, the ocean-dwelling masters of underwater life, can drown.

Although they’re excellent swimmers and can hold their breath for a long time, they still need to come up for air eventually. If they’re unable to reach the surface due to entanglement, exhaustion, or any other obstacle, they could drown.

But don’t worry too much; sea turtles are well-adapted to life in the ocean and usually manage just fine.

Can Red-Eared Sliders Drown?

How about red-eared sliders, those popular pet turtles? Yep, they can drown too.

Even though red-eared sliders are aquatic turtles and spend most of their time in the water, they still need to surface for air.

It’s essential to provide your red-eared slider with a suitable environment, including a proper basking area and resting spots, to prevent drowning. Keeping their habitat clean and free of hazards also helps to ensure their safety.

Can Box Turtles Drown?

Now, let’s talk about box turtles, which are primarily terrestrial. You might think they’re less likely to drown since they spend more time on land.

However, box turtles can still drown if they find themselves in water that’s too deep or if they’re unable to escape from a water-filled area. It’s crucial to provide your box turtle with a safe environment that includes shallow water for drinking and soaking, but not so deep that it poses a drowning risk.

So, all types of turtles, whether sea turtles, red-eared sliders, or box turtles, can potentially drown.

However, by understanding their unique needs and providing them with a safe and suitable environment, you can minimize the risk and keep your turtle buddies happy and healthy.

How Long Can a Red-Eared Slider Turtle Stay Underwater?

Red-eared sliders love hanging out underwater, but just how long can they stay submerged?

When they’re active and swimming around, red-eared sliders typically need to come up for air every 30 minutes to an hour.

However, when they’re resting or sleeping, they can stay underwater for much longer, even up to several hours, thanks to their slowed-down metabolism and ability to extract oxygen from the water. Pretty impressive, right?

How Long Can a Box Turtle Stay Underwater?

Box turtles are more land-loving than their aquatic cousins, so they don’t stay underwater for very long. These turtles usually hang out in shallow water to drink and soak, and they can hold their breath for about 5 to 10 minutes.

Since box turtles are not as well-adapted to aquatic life as other turtle species, it’s essential to provide them with a suitable environment that includes shallow water and plenty of dry land to explore.

How Long Can Painted Turtles Stay Underwater?

Painted turtles are aquatic champs, spending a lot of time swimming and basking in the water. When they’re active, painted turtles usually need to come up for air every 20 to 30 minutes.

However, during colder months, when they hibernate, their metabolism slows down significantly. This allows them to stay underwater for extended periods, even up to several weeks, relying on their ability to extract oxygen from the water.

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.