Can Turtles Drown | How Long Can Turtles Be Underwater

Yes, turtles can drown. Turtles are a semi-aquatic species, they have lungs to respire but can make most of their living underwater. Unlike other aquatic animals, turtles lack gills to ventilate in the water.

Like humans and other amphibians, they have lungs to breathe. However turtles can hold their breath for long hours underwater but once they get trapped in active fishing nets, turtles drown, running out of breath.

So what if turtles do not come to the outer surface of the water to replenish their lungs, Can a turtle drown? In this article, you can know everything about the drowning of the turtles.

Let’s study how you can save your turtle from drowning?

How Turtles Breathe?

Turtles breathe in many different ways. One way is breathing from their cheeks; the process is termed as buccopharyngeal pumping and the other way is breathing by the contraction and expansion of the muscles inside their shell.

Buccopharyngeal is a ventilation process in which respiration occurs from the buccal (mouth) of the animal. It is mainly a process of the exchange of gases from the surface of the mouth of a turtle or a tortoise. This process is common in anaerobic animals like turtles, frogs, and salamanders.

Another process of ventilation in both the aquatic and land turtles is carried through the lungs, as humans do. Turtles living underground or underwater both can breathe by inhaling oxygen into their lungs. However, their shell is hard enough to contract and release to breathe oxygen into the lungs. So the process is carried out by the muscles attached to the inner surface of a turtle’s shell.

Can Turtles Breathe Underwater?

Can Turtles Breathe Underwater
Yes turtle can breathe underwater

Yes. Turtles can breathe underwater without coming out to the surface of the water for long periods of hoursBut this is the third type of breathing which varies depending on the species and temperature degrees inside the water.

The process is termed cloacal respiration. Cloaca is the opening at the posterior end of a turtle’s body. The opening is used to excrete urination and other waste products from the body. The same cloacal opening is also used during reproduction and respiration underwater.

The cloaca or the butt opening of a turtle carries many blood vessels. When turtles hibernate underwater during long winters, they diffuse oxygen from the water into these blood vessels. This is not breathing similar to the one that is done above the water. But it is a simple process of diffusing the oxygen through the skin for their survival.

Can Sea Turtles Breathe Underwater?

No. Unlike other reptiles, sea turtles are not able to breathe underwater. The only process of ventilation that sea turtles have is breathing through their lungs. This is more like the breathing of mammals.

However, they can hold their breath for some hours depending on their activity level inside the water. For example, a sea turtle can hold his breath for almost 4-7 hours underwater whereas hibernating turtles can stay for several months.

Why Do Turtles Drown?

When following the mating ritual carried out between a male and a female turtle, some aggressive turtles start mounting over the shell of a female turtle to get into the process of mating before even getting permission from the female turtle, by asking gently to her by biting or nipping the female turtle’s neck.

Turtles usually drown when mating in the deep water. During mating, male turtles get their bodies onto the female turtles by being in mating for several hours. When the mating goes more than the usual hours, it certainly becomes difficult for the female turtle to bear the weight of her shell and the weight of her partner lying on her shell, resulting in the drowning of the turtle.

Can Red Eared Sliders Drown?

Can Red Eared Sliders Drown
Yes Red-eared sliders can drown

Yes. Red-eared sliders are the species that can stay for long underwater but, though there are some limits to it. The maximum time limit for a red-eared slider to stay underwater depends on their level of activity:

  • If a red-eared is swimming, they can hold their breath for about 20-30 minutes without coming out of the water to inhale oxygen.
  • However, if the red-eared turtle is resting in the water, without being involved in any activity he can spend about 30-40 minutes without breathing.
  • A sleeping red-eared turtle can survive for about 1 hour without drowning underwater.

Can You Drown A Turtle?

Unfortunately, yes. There are many human-made and natural factors that are helplessly involved in making a turtle drown underwater. This happens due to the limited knowledge about the life of turtles underwater and also by the fact that we humans are a major reason for polluting marine life.

Unlike red-eared sliders, which live most of their lives underwater are less likely to drown than the box turtles that lack the webbed feet that restrict their movement to shallow waters.

If you place a tortoise, in water for long they will immediately drown as their bodies are not adapted to survive in the lakes and ponds.

Air and water pollution is high at the marine level due to the sewage dumping into the sea waters. It had become quite difficult for sea turtles to come out to the surface to breathe in the air; hence many of them drown mercilessly.

Additionally, other factors include:

  • Deepwater levels, 
  • Loose rocks, 
  • No basking area,
  • Slippery ramps or 
  • Traps.

Can A Baby Turtle Drown?

Yes. Baby turtles are higher at risk of drowning than experienced and mature turtles. Due to their low level of experience in adapting to a life in water they mostly do not know when to come outside to breathe in the air. This results in the drowning of the baby turtles.

Evenly, a tortoise’s undeveloped lungs lack the proper functionality to provide them enough to hold their breath underwater. Some pet baby turtles also drown while climbing to the basking dock lacking a rampage or while pushing themselves onto a slippery ramp.

Can Sea Turtles Drown?

Can Sea Turtles Drown
Sea turtles cannot drown

Naturally no! Sea turtles cannot drown except while mating. They are adapted to the periods of resting underwater and swimming back to the shores for ventilation.

However, they drown when they get entangled in active fishing nets or ghost nets. The stored oxygen rapidly depletes when unrest about the situation. The falling oxygen level is stressful to the sea turtles. Thus they need to rush out to the surface to breathe more oxygen. If not, they get drowned and die.

How Long Can Turtles Be Underwater?

A turtle’s capability to be underwater depends on its species and one external factor: the water temperature. It varies from species to species how long a turtle can be underwater but the average period for a turtle to hold his breath underwater can be around 45 minutes.

However, they dive for almost around 4-5 minutes and breathe for a few seconds between their dives. Following are few examples of different turtle species and the average time they can hold underwater:

Species name  Average period underwater
Red-eared sliders 20-30 minutes
Box turtles  15-30 minutes
Painted turtles Many hours
Sea turtles  4-7 hours


It is pretty incredible to know that turtles, despite living most of their lives around water, can drown. Try to take precautionary measures around your turtle basking dock and in the tank. If your pet drowns, take them to a vet because survival after drowning is relatively hard. It may cause serious lung problems to your turtle.

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