Can Turtles Drown?

can turtles drown

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Turtles spend most of their hours swimming in the water. Most turtle species are biologically programmed to move gracefully and stay underwater for a long time. But with bad luck, the swiftest swimmers can drown. What about your loved pet turtles? Can turtles drown?

Turtles can drown in undesirable circumstances. In most incidents, the turtle gets trapped underwater and runs out of breath. If the turtle cannot come to the surface to replenish its lung, it will drown.

Do you know turtles can drown even in the captive environment? In this article, you will get everything you should know about a turtle’s drowning, including how to revive a drowned turtle and how to prevent your pet from drowning. 

Can Turtles Drown?

You know turtles can stay underwater for a long time. The question of drowning might seem silly. But the truth is, each year, many turtles die prematurely due to drowning.

The incident is unlikely both in the wild and in captivity because turtles have a fair idea of limits for being underwater. Still, uninvited events sometimes are responsible for a turtle’s drowning.

In the case of sea turtles, drowning is a natural incident, and it occurs during mating. The sea turtles perform their courtship in deep water. The male sea turtle mounts on the female turtle and tries to hang onto the shell.

The mating can get intense for the female sea turtles. It is because the female has to support both her own and the weight of her partner. The courtship process may take several hours. And for the female turtle, it becomes hard to come to the surface to breathe with the heavyweight. As a result, the turtle may run out of air and drown.

The drowning can also occur during the courtship ritual. Generally, the male sea turtles bite or nip at the female turtle’s neck or tail to propose for mating. The aggressive males may start mounting the female turtle. When several males try competing by getting on the female turtle’s back, the female may get drowned.

We, humans, are also responsible for these little creatures’ death from drowning. We set traps to catch fishes or crabs in the pond, lake, river, or sea. If a turtle falls in the trap, it may drown and die.

Turtles can also drown in a captive situation though it is rare. The poor enclosure management is responsible in this case. The deepwater, no dock, or loose rock, etc., are the signs of improper terrarium arrangement and why a turtle drowns in the tank.

Can Sea Turtles Drown?

Yes, sea turtles may drown if they fail to replenish their lungs at the right time. As these turtles can not breathe underwater, coming to the surface from time to time is their only option to get air. The sea turtles are able to hold their breath for 4 to 7 hours while napping or resting. After that period, these turtles have to swim to the surface and breathe.

The sea turtles are biologically programmed to adapt to this breathing system. So, generally, they do not drown. The turtles know exactly when they have to replenish their lungs.

Mostly, the man-made traps, such as the crab catching device, the ghost nets, or the active fishing nets, are responsible for the sea turtles’ drowning. When a turtle gets trapped or entangled in the net, it panics a lot and tries to escape.

Stress drains the oxygen storage in the sea turtle rapidly. As a result, the turtle will start drowning if it can not get hold of air. The whole incident will occur in minutes.

A sea turtle can drown naturally while mating. I have already discussed it in the previous section.

Can Red Eared Sliders Drown?

Red eared sliders are aquatic species and spend around 75% of their lives in the water. Still, the red eared sliders can drown. In the wild, drowning cases of red eared sliders are almost rare.

Even if a red eared slider drowns in the captive situation, the owner is mainly responsible for the condition.

Improper management of the enclosure is what makes your pet turtle drown. The turtles can tangle by the misplaced rocks or the plants. Like all other species, the red eared sliders can not hold their breath underwater for more than 30 minutes in an active state. In case they fail to replenish their lungs, they will start drowning.

Can Baby Turtles Drown

Can Box Turtles Drown?

As a terrestrial turtle, box turtles do not excel at holding breath underwater. Box turtles can drown in deep water sources.

Box turtles are anything but not great swimmers. They spend their lives on the land. These turtles go to the swallow water bodies just to wet the shells and drink water. The box turtles always stay away from deep water sources to avoid drowning.

In captivity, the experts suggest providing low-depth water pools for the box turtles. It is because these turtles have a high risk of drowning in deep water sources.

Can Baby Turtles Drown?

The baby and the young turtles are most at risk of drowning. It is because their bodies haven’t been developed yet. Also, the young turtles are weaker and inexperienced than the adult turtles. They often do not understand when to get back to the surface for air. And it results in drowning.

Besides, a deep water tank or a basking dock without a ramp can be responsible for your baby turtle’s drowning. The baby turtles can not hold their breath for a long time underwater as their lungs are not that strong.

So, experts suggest keeping the water level as low as possible in the baby turtle’s tank. Otherwise, the babies might not make it to the surface for oxygen.

Again, the baby turtles can hardly get onto the basking dock that lacks a ramp. You know baby turtles can not jump higher. The babies may tire out while climbing the platform and drown.

However, the slippery or steep ramps also work against the young turtles. These types of docks or ramps are difficult to climb for babies. Hence, the risk of drowning increases.

What Makes A Turtle Drown?

Many factors, both man-made, and natural are responsible for a turtle to drown. Such as,

  • The deepwater level in the tank
  • Loose rocks
  • Basking dock out of the pet reach
  • No basking platform
  • Slippery or steep ramp
  • Traps like a fishing net

These are the factors created by humans. The natural causes are mating in the deep sea or not knowing the right time to get to the surface for breathing air.

Sometimes a turtle swims in the deep water in search of food or anything else. Traveling that far may tire out the turtle and drain the energy to reach the surface. In that case, the creature will drown.

However, often turtles flip their bodies near water and can not get back to their normal position. Accidents like this may be responsible for their drowning.

No matter what the reason is, a turtle basically drowns when it runs out of oxygen. You know, turtles are not like fishes, who breathe underwater with gills. Rather, turtles own lungs and breathe air. The lung is the reason why a turtle moves comfortably both in the land and water areas.

When the turtles swim or stay in the water, they basically hold their breath. These creatures are biologically programmed for this. Depending on the species, a turtle can hold its breath for 20 minutes to 1 hour.

For example, in an active state, a red eared slider can stay underwater for 20 to 30 minutes, while a sea turtle can hold its breath for more than 30 minutes. During resting or sleeping, the turtles are able to stay underwater for 4 to 7 hours at a stretch without breathing air. At the time of hibernation, turtles stay underwater at a sleeping state for 4 to 7 months.

From the examples, one thing is clear. A turtle’s breath-holding ability depends on its activity state. This creature spends months underwater without drowning while hibernating. How is that even possible?

The fact is, a sleeping or hibernating turtle still needs oxygen, but in small quantities. As their metabolism drops and so do the other activities, their body oxygen requirements decrease. Hence, the sleeping or hibernating turtle stays month underwater without drowning. They come to the surface to replenish the lungs once in a while. If these fail to get air, they will drown too.

However, when a turtle is most active, it requires more oxygen. The turtle body is capable of storing oxygen for 20 to 30 minutes or a maximum of 1 hour in some species. After that, the turtle has to replenish its lung with oxygen. Otherwise, drowning is a must.

If a turtle gets trapped, stuck, or tangled, the creature panics and stresses out a lot. The anxiety leads to more oxygen consumption from the storage. A scared turtle often breathes water to get hold of air. Water in the lung adds more risk of drowning.

Some cases show that a stuck turtle drowns and dies within a few minutes. Anaerobic respiration is the main reason for a quick death.

This condition occurs when the turtle uses all the oxygen rapidly. The turtle body starts producing toxic lactic acid instead of oxygen. Eventually, the built-up toxicity causes the quick death of the turtle.

sings that your turtle is dead

Signs That Your Turtle Is Drowned

You already know turtles can drown because of several factors. How would you differentiate a drowned turtle and a sleeping turtle? A drowning turtle moves its legs to and fro just to get to the surface. Eventually, it tires out and slowly lands underwater.

In most cases, the drowned turtle is unconscious or enters a comatose state. The lung of the pet fills with water, and the turtle lacks touch reflexes. The most important sign is the turtle will stay immobile. On the other hand, a sleeping turtle will respond to your touch quickly and move effortlessly.

If you found your turtle drowned, try saving it with first aid. Or take the pet to the vet immediately.

Signs That Your Drowned Turtle Is Dead

Imagine you have found your pet turtle pinned to the bottom of the tank, immobile. What will you do? Will you try first aid or run to the vet?

The very first thing you should do after finding your drowned turtle is to check its condition. Look for the signs of whether your turtle is dead or alive. Never make any decisions without proper observations.

Here are the signs that will tell you if your pet is dead from drowning or still alive:

Dead Turtle Will Start To Float

Your drowned turtle will float to the water surface if it is dead. After several hours of dying, gases start building up in the tract of the turtle and make the pet buoyant. Hence, the turtle floats.

However, a turtle may float because of respiratory illness, gastrointestinal issues, or boredom. Find out why a turtle floats by clicking here.

Live Turtle Show Small Movements

If your drowned turtle is not dead, it will show some visual clues of life. You know turtles can hold their breath underwater for a really long time. But when they are on land, they need to breathe.

If your turtle is breathing, you will notice small movements of inhaling and exhale between the neck and front legs or between the tail and back legs. This proves that your drowned turtle’s heart is still pumping blood, and it is alive.

The inhale and exhale movements are slow. It is because the breathing rate and heart rate of the pet drop after entering into an unconscious state.

Response To Touch

Check the tuck reflex of your drowned pet. You know, turtles hate to be disturbed and prefer to stay alone. If you touch your pet, it will give you an instant reaction.

As a response to the touch, the turtle will withdraw its legs and head into the shell. Even if the pet is on the brink of death, it will try to tuck in. So, to find out if your drowned turtle is dead or alive, gently push and pull its legs or give a gentle poke with an eraser behind the pet’s ear.

A dead turtle will not respond to the tuck reflex. On the other hand, the living turtle will hiss, bite, or tuck into the shell.

Apply Pressure To The Sensitive Area

Some experts advise applying pressure on the area between the cloacal and tail region. While dead turtles do not respond to the push, the living ones try escaping and protecting themselves.

Feature Technique

The feather movement is another technique to find out if your turtle is dead or alive. Hold a feather in front of your drowned turtle’s nose. The faintest breath of the pet will move the feather. This method is time-consuming compared to other ones.

Bad Odor

If your drowned turtle goes unnoticed for weeks, it will spread off a bad odor. This foul smell indicates that your pet is dead and its body has started to decompose.

If you are still confused, you should take your drowned pet to the nearest vet possible.

Can You Save A Drowned Turtle

How Long Does A Turtle Survive After Drowning?

Turtles are tough creatures. Even after drowning, there are fair possibilities that a turtle can make through life. No one can tell for sure how long a turtle may fight for life even after drowning. It can be a few minutes or hours.

Usually, a turtle may stay in a coma for an hour or more. The experts claim that a drowned turtle can still be alive after 12 hours. The pet appears dead because its body system shuts down due to the lack of oxygen. However, if toxic gas builds up in the drowned turtle’s body, it will not survive more than a few minutes.

Can You Save A Drowned Turtle?

If you find your pet turtle drowned at the bottom of the tank, you need to act quickly. Turtles are real survivors, and they can still fight for life even after 12 hours of drowning. A turtle in a coma state has a fair chance of 50-50 to get back to life. So, you should do everything in your position, even if there is the slightest possibility of saving your drowned pet.

You can revive your drowned turtle with the following a few steps. Keep four things in your mind. Such as,

  1. Do not flip the turtle or get it on its back. The pet stores a little amount of air in the lung even after drowning. Flipping the turtle upside down will deprive it of oxygen.
  2. CPR or giving mouth to mouth is not an option here. Your breathing capability is different and more powerful than the turtles. The strong air blow can damage the pet’s internal organs. Moreover, it will force the leftover oxygens out from the turtle’s lungs.
  3. Do not put a straw in your turtle’s mouth to breathe in it. Forcing a straw can damage the pet’s jaw muscles and mouth.
  4. Take your drowned turtle to the nearest vet as soon as possible.

I know this can be a stressful situation for you. Still, you have to be patient and calm. Here are the steps you can follow before going to the vet:

  • Remove the turtle gently from the tank without flipping it or turning it upside down.
  • Hold the pet vertically and make sure its head is lower than the tail.
  • Place your hand under the turtle’s head.
  • Take a gentle grip from behind the pet’s ears. Pull the neck until it is extended.
  • With your other hand, push down the turtle’s lower jaw or try opening the pet’s mouth. If the jaws open, water will drip out of the turtle’s mouth. If not, go to the vet. Do not force anything on your own.
  • Once water is out of the turtle’s mouth, put the pet on a stable, flat, dry surface upright. Still, lying the turtle on its back is not okay.
  • Now gently pull the front legs of the turtle towards you until they are fully extended. Then push them back. Continue this for a few minutes. The forward and backward movement resembles the pumping action. Water will drip out of the turtle’s mouth.
  • Repeat the step with the rear legs too. The contraction forces the lung to compress by reducing the area inside the shell. More water will come out of the turtle’s mouth.
  • If your turtle is lifeless, you can do one more thing. Gently grab the turtle’s head, place the shell on your palm, and swing the pet from one side to another. The leftover water will be out from the inside of the body.
  • After a few minutes, all the water will dispel out of the turtle’s lung. It will allow your pet to take a deep breath and replenish its lung with oxygen again.
  • Finally, go to the vet for proper treatment and medical care for your drowned turtle. The vet may hook up a small oxygen tube inside the turtle’s mouth to deliver oxygen. Taking the pet to the expert is mandatory to avoid pneumonia and other health risks.

If your turtle survives the drowning, keep it away from water for at least 24 hours. Place the pet in a dry, warm tank or box. The temperature of the environment should be around 77 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

The vet may suggest a few antibiotics after checking up on everything. Your turtle may not start moving and playing right after it is recovered. The pet requires a few days to get back to the usual routine.

Can Turtles Drown While Sleeping?

No. I am sure this question has crossed your mind if you are a newbie. Do not worry if your turtle sleeps underwater. Many turtle species, for example, the painted turtle, are programmed to sleep underwater.

Turtles can sleep or rest at the bottom of the tank for 4 to 7 hours without drowning. Because at that time, turtles slow down their metabolism and drop the oxygen consumption rate. Hence, they can hold their breath longer than usual and do not drown. The pets may come to the surface once or twice and go back to sleep again.

Are you curious about how turtles sleep underwater? This article will answer all your questions.

How To Prevent Turtles From Drowning?

You can decrease the risk of your turtle drowning in the captive enclosure. First of all, determine the factors that can drown your pet. Turtles can get stuck in the small gap behind the rock, under the driftwood, or the bottom surface.

The pets may get tangled in the plants of the aquarium. The suction ability of installed equipment in the tanks may also work against the turtle’s force. Besides, the deep water and the improper basking platform may be the reason behind a turtle’s drowning.

To prevent your turtles from drowning,

  • Eliminate the obstacles from the tank.
  • Place the rocks and plants in such a manner that these things do not disturb the turtle’s movement.
  • Decide the water level according to the shell length of the turtles.
  • Keep the suction power of the equipment at a moderate level.
  • The basking dock must be in reach of the turtles. The ramp area should not be slippery or too steep for the turtle.


Unfortunately, a turtle can drown though the cases are rare. If your turtle has drowned, try reviving it following the proper guidelines. Then take the pet to a vet as soon as possible. As improper tank management is mainly responsible for turtle drowning in captivity, take action to solve the enclosure problems.

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.


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