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Can Turtles Swim? How to Keep Your Pet Safe

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By Nicole Cosgrove

turtle swimming in aquarium

Turtles are a type of reptile perhaps best known for their shells. The term “turtle” isn’t a reference to a species but rather a broad category which includes sea turtles (not kept as pets), semi-aquatic turtles (also known as terrapins), and tortoises.

The aquatic turtles can swim, with most species being excellent swimmers. Tortoises, as terrestrial animals, cannot swim well and they should not be placed in deep water.

Whatever species of semi-aquatic turtle you are planning on keeping, you will need to ensure that they have adequate water in their tank.

Can Turtles Swim?

Turtles have webbed feet and legs that are strong enough to propel them through the water. They also have streamlined bodies. This combination means that they can use their webbed feet to push through the water, closing their toes to prevent drag when pushing their feet forward again. Turtles can also float on top of the water and use their webbed feet and legs to effectively paddle on the surface.

domestic red-eared turtle in an aquarium
Image Credit: DiPres, Shutterstock

How Long Can Turtles Swim?

Every species is different but, generally, turtles can swim for several hours at a time. They can dive underwater for about 20 to 45 minutes but most often dive for a few minutes before surfacing for air. When kept in captivity, it is rare for turtles to dive for long because food is more readily available, and they don’t have to escape predators.

How Fast Can They Swim?

Similarly, captive turtles will not usually reach their top speeds because these speeds are attained when turtles are attempting to escape predators. Some turtles can swim at speeds of 20 miles (32 km) per hour during evasion, but most will swim at speeds of between 1 and 5 miles per hour (1.6 – 8 km/hour) at other times. That being said, turtles fed live prey in water will likely showcase their maximum speed while they hunt.

Pet Turtle swimming in a tank
Image Credit: Dzmitrock, Shutterstock

Do Turtles Breathe Underwater?

Turtles do not breathe underwater. Rather, they hold their breath. They will surface to take on more air and then hold their breath while diving, returning to the surface when they need more air. Certain species of semi-aquatic turtles can hold air in their cloaca to prolong the amount of time they can spend underwater, however they do eventually have to surface.

Why Can’t Tortoises Swim Well?

Tortoises have shells that are more domed than aquatic turtles. Their feet are not webbed, either, and this combination means that they are not adept at swimming, although they do like to wade in shallow water, in most cases.


Semi-aquatic turtles, which are often kept as pets, are skilled swimmers. Depending on the species and the circumstances, they can swim at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour, although more often swim at speeds between 1 and 5 miles per hour.

When kept as pets, turtles need to be kept in a paludarium and provided with ample water as well as dry ground. They usually also require a basking lamp and UVB lighting to ensure that they have the right conditions in which to thrive. They can make good pets, but owners need to thoroughly research the species of turtle they are getting to make sure they understand their care requirements.

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Featured Image Credit: Jaclyn Vernace, Shutterstock

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