Turtles Swim but Tortoises Don't. Here's Why - TortoiseOwner.com

Turtles Swim but Tortoises Don’t. Here’s Why.

It’s been a few years since a shocking viral video surfaced. The woman in the video was “saving a turtle” by throwing it into the water. Unfortunately, what she believed to be a struggling baby turtle was, in fact, a tortoise. That single video caused such a ruckus across the internet that people finally began asking the right question.

Can tortoises swim? Tortoises cannot swim. At most, they can float and drift, and if they’re lucky they’ll bump into land. Some species of tortoises can swim poorly, but most will simply sink and drown.

While it is sad that so many people throw tortoises into the water believing they’re saving a baby turtle, the viral video did help. It shed some light on this unintentionally cruel practice. Below, we’ll explore the subject in more detail and help demystify the mix up so fewer tortoises are harmed.

Why can turtles swim but tortoises can’t?

The confusion over the swimming abilities of tortoises and turtles comes from the fact both animals are reptiles and have very similar appearances. The differences between turtles and tortoises can be so slight that it’s difficult for the layman to spot.

But if tortoises and turtles are so similar that it’s hard to tell them apart, why can turtles swim but tortoises can’t?

The answer lies in their physiology.

Flippers and Feet

The biggest physical reason that turtles can swim and tortoises can’t is the difference in their appendages. Turtles have flippers with just a couple claws. The flippers help propel them in water.

Tortoises, on the other hand, have bent legs with clawed toes. They look more like stumpy elephant feet. These limbs are much more suited for land travel than water.

If you compare photos of sea turtles and tortoises, you’ll see that the tortoise’s bent legs and clawed toes are designed to lift the heavy, shelled body up off the ground a significant amount. The sea turtle, however, must drag itself across the land because their fins and webbed toes weren’t meant for land travel.

Shell Shapes

Another big factor in swimming ability is shell shape and weight. Turtles have a flattened, lighter, streamlined shell made for slippery sea travel. By comparison, the tortoise has a heavy, domed shell that prevents safe water travel.

Why do people get them confused?

Many people who have tried to save a baby turtle and ended up hurting a tortoise made the mistake in identity because of the tortoise’s location. The gopher tortoise, for example, often nests in and around the dunes not far from sea turtle nesting areas.

Hatchlings from both reptiles can sometimes be seen near one another. While the baby sea turtles are racing toward the water, the baby gopher tortoises are just out for a stroll or getting some sun. Well-meaning people try to “help” by bringing all the hatchlings to the water, without realizing some of them are actually land-dwelling tortoises.

Will a tortoise drown in water?

The sad truth is that yes, a tortoise is likely to drown in the water. They just aren’t designed to swim well, if at all. There is a slight chance that a tortoise may survive an accidental dip in the water, but the conditions must be just right.

For example, a tortoise thrown into the ocean will probably drown. Yet, a tortoise placed gently on top of still water—such as a pond or lake—has a chance to survive. It just needs to stay afloat and hope it drifts close enough to shore to climb out.

Please don’t try this at home!

Sometimes tortoises don’t drown

Even though most tortoises are more likely to drown than not, there have been a few rare cases where the tortoise somehow survived extended time in or under the water. A search of any tortoise social group will turn up a handful of miracle stories involving a tortoise surviving what should have been a deadly encounter with deep water.

Some stories begin with a tortoise escaping an outdoor enclosure and falling into a pond, while others talk about a tortoise visiting a pet turtle’s enclosure and falling into the water. Another curious story involved a heavy rain and a tortoise getting stuck in a deep puddle for about 20 minutes.

How did these tortoises survive? Apparently, a tortoise can hold her breath for a long time. In fact, they have to empty their lungs before dipping into their shells to hide. It’s this breath holding ability that likely saved the tortoises in these stories.

Can tortoises float?

Some tortoises can float, but not all. A lot of it has to do with the age and weight of the tortoise. Some has to do with the stillness of the water. And some has to do with luck.

If conditions are right, a tortoise can float and drift, hoping to bump into the beach.

Do tortoises like to swim?

Wild tortoises probably don’t enjoy swimming. They tend to avoid the water, knowing they can’t swim well enough to get back to land. They do like to bathe though, so you may see one dipping into shallow water now and then to freshen up.

Pet tortoises, however, have been known to enjoy occasional water time in the bath tub. It’s important to never leave a pet tortoise unattended around water for even a moment. It doesn’t take long for a tortoise to tip over, flip over, or get their head dunked under and drown.

Can baby tortoises swim?

Baby tortoises can’t swim either. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be seen near bodies of water. Baby tortoises need to drink and bathe like other animals, but if they are thrown into the water or accidentally fall in, they will likely drown.

As mentioned earlier, a tortoise is able to hold his breath for quite some time. Unfortunately, baby tortoises aren’t very big, which means their lungs aren’t very big either. A baby tortoise wouldn’t last long swimming.

It’s not typical for a tortoise to swim underwater. You may see a video online now and then of a tortoise swimming or dipping underwater, but this is not a natural or normal behavior for them.

Can tortoises swim in pools?

A supervised pet tortoise may enjoy a quick splash in a non-chlorinated pool, but only in the shallow end and not for very long. Not all pet tortoises will enjoy playing in the water though, so be sure you don’t force a tortoise to stay in the water.

It’s worth noting that chlorine is not good for animals. You should never put a tortoise in a chlorinated pool.


With their bent legs and clawed toes, tortoises aren’t designed to swim. They may be found near water or even getting a drink or taking a quick bath, but they are not aquatic reptiles and they do not swim.

Common Questions

Can tortoises climb out of the water? Yes, they can climb out of the water if they are close to shore or can get up onto a log or rock.

Can a star tortoise swim? No. There are no tortoise species that can swim well, if at all.

Do tortoises swim in the ocean? Not usually, but that doesn’t mean they never do. There is always going to be one or two animals that go against the normal behaviors of their species, and tortoises are no different.

How fast can a tortoise swim? Assuming the tortoise survives the initial dip into the water, it’s not going to swim very fast, if at all. They do not have the right physiological traits to swim. They are more likely to float and drift, which means they will be at the mercy of the current’s speed.

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