Do Sea Turtles Need Air?

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

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Like all living things, sea turtles need oxygen to survive. Sea turtles are fascinating creatures of the sea. They live most of their life in the deep sea. That’s why many people often wonder how sea turtles get oxygen. So, do sea turtles need air? Or can they get oxygen from water? 

Sea turtles are reptiles. They cannot breathe underwater. They need air to live because they must come to the land to reproduce. Sea turtles have adapted unique qualities to live in the sea. That’s why they can remain underwater for hours without breathing air

In this article, I will explain how sea turtles breathe air. You will also know how sea turtles stay underwater for so long without breathing. 

How Do Sea Turtles Breathe?

Sea turtles spend most of their time swimming, hunting, and even sleeping in the sea. Hence, many people think they can breathe in water. But they do come to the surface frequently to breathe air. So, how do sea turtles breathe?  

Since sea turtles do not have to get their head entirely out of the water to breathe air, it seems they can breathe underwater water. 

They have external nares on their snouts. These are like the nostrils we have to breathe air. Sea turtles have to get their snout out of the water to get air for a few minutes. Turtles can contract and extend their neck easily, which also helps to get air from the surface without needing to get out of water.

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When sea turtles breathe in the air through the nares, the air travels to the trachea. The trachea of sea turtles is long and flexible because of the shape of the neck. The trachea reaches near the turtle’s heart, where it divides into two parts. These parts are called bronchi. Through the bronchi, oxygen is delivered to the lungs. 

The lungs then absorb the oxygen and deliver it to different body parts. Sea turtles have large size lungs that help to store more oxygen. Thus, they get more time to stay underwater. 

Now, here is how sea turtle breathing gets different from us. The rib cage of animals expands and contracts for breathing. But sea turtles do not have a separate rib cage like us. Their rib cage is attached to their shell. Thus, they cannot use it to pump air in and out. 

However, sea turtles have muscles inside the shell above the lungs on the rib cage that expand and contract like a regular rib cage. Thus, sea turtles can breathe air in and out of their lungs. 

In fact, the muscles help turtles to breathe easily. The lung pressure alters when the turtles move their flippers and neck. Thus, fill the lungs with air. 

How Often Do Sea Turtles Need Air?

How long sea turtles can hold their breath depends on their situation. An active sea turtle swimming and hunting in the water must come up on the surface to breathe air every few minutes. On the other hand, turtles can rest or sleep underwater to hold their breath for hours. 

A stressed or active turtle needs more oxygen to stay functional. But a resting turtle does not need to use too much oxygen because it slows down its metabolism and becomes almost inactive. 

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Just because sea turtles can hold their breath for a long time does not mean they do it anytime. Holding breaths for this long time is not a simple task. Turtles have to swim and hunt to survive. For that, they need oxygen. So, they frequently come up to the surface for fresh air to keep themselves healthy and active. 

How Long Can Sea Turtles Hold Their Breath?

Sea turtles can hold their breath for a few minutes or hours. It depends on their activity level. Since sea turtles spend most of their time in the sea, they also prefer sleeping underwater. Depending on the species, sea turtles can sleep 4 to 7 hours underwater without coming up to the surface to breathe air. 

It is possible because sea turtles choose a stress-free environment to sleep. Their heart rate lowers when they are not feeling any stress. A sleeping turtle can have a single heartbeat every 9 minutes. Hence, they require less oxygen, enabling them to remain underwater for an extended time. 

Can Sea Turtles Breathe Underwater? 

No, sea turtles cannot breathe in water. They must come to the surface to get their fair share of oxygen from breathing air. Many people confuse a sea turtle’s ability to hold its breath as breathing underwater like fish. However, turtles do not have gills like fish; instead, they have lungs. 

Now you may wonder, “Then how can sea turtles hibernate underwater for months during the cold season?” Sea turtles have an interesting way of doing that!

Many people say sea turtles can breathe through their butt. It is the cloaca, an opening close to a turtle’s tail. However, this is not actually breathing. Sea turtles can suck in water through their cloaca and absorb oxygen. So, this is not practically breathing oxygen. 

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As you know, sea turtles can hold their breath for a long time when they are not stressed. To survive, they switch their metabolism system from aerobic to anaerobic. 

It is a process of stopping the use of oxygen as energy and start using stored glucose instead. This process is known as anaerobic respiration. Thus, sea turtles do not need a high amount of oxygen during hibernation underwater. 

Can Sea Turtles Drown?

Sea turtles can hold their breaths for hours and are excellent swimmers. But they also have their limits. How long a sea turtle can hold its breath depends on the environment and situation. 

The heartbeat of a stressed turtle increases, and it needs more oxygen, requiring it to swim to the surface for air. If a turtle does not get to the surface in time, it drowns as the water gets inside its lungs.

There are many cases of sea turtles dying within a few minutes of getting caught in a net. They cannot get to the surface to fill their lungs with oxygen. Moreover, they become stressed and deplete stored oxygen fast. Sea turtles are also dying because of getting entangled with plastics and garbage thrown into the sea.  


Do Sea Turtles Need Air? Yes, they need air to survive like any other reptile. They cannot breathe underwater, but they are experts at holding their breath for a long time. Their unique breathing skills make them one of the most remarkable creatures in the world. 

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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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