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How Long Can Turtles Hold Their Breath Underwater?


Do you sometimes notice your pet turtle chilling under their tank’s water? Maybe you go about your business, glance over, and still see them relaxed under the water. Although it can seem worrying to see them underwater for so long, it’s completely normal for your turtle to hold its breath for several reasons. 

However, it depends on the species of turtle on how long it’s okay for them to remain underwater. And what they’re doing while they’re underneath. 

Turtles can stay underwater anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on the species. However, most pet turtle species can hold their breath for an average of 40-60 minutes. Aside from species, factors like age, water temperature, and activity level will determine the time. 

The term ’turtle’ encompasses all the estimated 356 species around the world. The main classes of turtles are marine turtles, freshwater turtles, and land turtles. The species you most likely have in your home or garden are one of the latter two. 

How Long Can Turtles Hold Their Breath?

Turtles are ectothermic reptiles meaning they rely on external conditions to keep them warm.

Along with a temperature-controlled habitat, turtles use warm water to regulate their core temperatures.

Different species have different breathing abilities. Many turtle species average out at 40-60 minutes of holding their breath underwater.

Understandably, marine turtles tend to be able to hold their breaths much longer, whereas pet turtles may only hold theirs for a few minutes. 

Not only does this ability differ between species, but within species too. Age, health, and external environmental factors can affect one turtle’s ability compared to its brother. 

Factors That Influence Turtle’s Breath-Holding Ability

As with almost everything, some factors will influence the ability to carry out any task. For turtles, holding their breath underwater is no different. The main factors influencing turtles’ ability to hold their breath underwater are species, age, health, and water temperature. 

Species

With the three classes of turtles, it’s easy to guess which species will fare better underwater than others. But how long is that time?

Below are some of the most common pet species so you can be confident next time your pet is safe roaming about underwater.

Turtle SpeciesTime Spent Holding Breath Underwater
Red-eared Slider (Freshwater)30-35 minutes 
Painted Turtle (Freshwater)Several hours
Box Turtles (Land)15-30 minutes
Russian tortoise (Land)2-4 minutes
Turtle Species and Time Spent Holding Breath Underwater

As you can see, there is a wide range of how long a turtle can hold its breath. And whether they are aquatic or not heavily influences that ability. 

But even with those figures, other factors come into play too, like activity.

Activity

The level of activity of the turtle is another great influencing factor. With activities like swimming or hunting, their metabolism will speed up. 

With this increased metabolism, the need for oxygen increases and is used more quickly. If the turtle is highly active in the water, it may only last several seconds or minutes underwater compared to its average time. 

On the other side of the metabolic scale, many turtle species hibernate (or brumate) while they’re in the water. Because their system changes priority to self-conservation, their metabolism will drastically slow down.

Only moving slowly, their need for oxygen drops, increasing their ability to hold their breath underwater. 

Age

The above time figures are based on a fully developed healthy adult. Hatchlings (baby turtles) and juvenile turtles are still growing, which includes their lung capacity. 

It takes time for a turtle to train their lungs to hold water for long periods. So, seeing young turtles surfacing after only a few seconds is completely normal as they learn to strengthen their lungs.  

Generally, elderly turtles will have issues holding their breath for as long as they once did. Possibly due to weakening lung capacity or recovering from/dealing with poor health conditions. 

Health

Some of the most common health conditions that happen to turtles include vitamin A deficiency, gastrointestinal issues, and shell infections. 

Vitamin A deficiency, in particular, usually results in a respiratory infection if left untreated. With the build-up of mucus in the lungs, the turtle can’t absorb as much oxygen as it would in perfect health. 

Aside from respiratory infections, any health condition will increase metabolism as the body works to fight off the disease or infection. 

A sign of a sick turtle is if they’re unable to stay underwater for as long as it usually would.

Water Temperature

Because turtles rely on their environment to provide heat, most pet turtles need at least 60°F to stay active. When their water is above this temperature, the turtle will be more active and therefore need to surface more often.

And then in contrast, if the water temperature drops below 50°F, turtles enter brumation to conserve heat. Less oxygen needs means less resurfacing. 

How Can Turtles Hold Their Breath So Long?

Even though turtles train themselves to have amazing lung capacity, they can absorb oxygen in a different way while underwater. Although not as abundant, water contains oxygen.

Most species can absorb this oxygen through a process called cloacal respiration. The cloaca is essentially the turtle’s butt and reproductive organ. This area is full of blood vessels that absorb the oxygen from water. 

And, although it may seem like turtles dive for ages, they sometimes pop their heads up to get air. Because of the nares above their mouths, they only need to peek their heads up for a few seconds before diving again. They don’t need to lift their entire heads above water, so it’s not as easily noticeable.  

Why Can Sea Turtles Hold Their Breath Longer?

Sea turtles can hold their breath for hours at a time. For example, a Loggerhead Sea turtle holds the record for 10 hours for staying underwater. 

The thing is, sea turtles’ biology differs from freshwater or land turtles’. The moment sea turtles hold their breath, their metabolism slows. They don’t need to be in brumation conditions to do so. 

This seemingly simple difference is why these turtles can stay underwater for. But, they don’t tax themselves often and typically resurface every 15-30 minutes depending on activity. 

Do Turtles Sleep Underwater?

Pet turtles usually sleep above water; either on land or on the surface of the water.

Many turtles choose to sleep underwater, as it’s one of the safest places from predators. Though how long they spend underwater depends on the class. 

Marine (sea) turtles typically sleep on the ocean floor or in coral caves, out of sight of predators. Because they’re at sea, they don’t have any option but to sleep underwater. If they were to sleep at the surface, they’d be vulnerable to predators. Sea turtles can hold their breath for hours at a time with their slowed metabolism, giving them ample time for sleep.  

Freshwater turtles are like sea turtles, and most of these species sleep on the bottom of a lake or river, burrowing under sand or mud. Like their sea siblings, freshwater turtles sleep for around 5 hours at any time. Because of their lack of movement, their oxygen isn’t consumed as fast.

Land turtles, like the box turtle, aren’t suited for being underwater. Because of their domed shell shape and inflexible limbs, they can’t swim properly through the water. Therefore turtles don’t sleep underwater. Instead, they usually sleep in nests made from grass or wood shavings. 

Can Turtles Drown?

With so much time spent underwater, it’s a curiosity whether turtles can drown. Especially when young turtles are strengthening their lungs for longer dives. 

The fact is, yes, it’s absolutely possible for a turtle to drown. Even a sea turtle. All turtle species have lungs that need abundant oxygen from the air. Even though they can absorb oxygen through water, the percentage is minimal (1% vs. 21% in air). 

Luckily, turtles have the survival instinct to monitor when their oxygen blood levels drop too low. And, even during sleep, if the oxygen level drops too low, the turtle will wake up to resurface. 

Finally

As you can see, the length of time a turtle can hold their breath varies wildly depending on various factors. Most species are incredible swimmers and have adapted to survive underwater for a long time.

Once you know what’s normal for your turtle species, you can be more confident leaving it to its dive.

And, if your turtle’s behavior changes, including underwater time, it’s important to check with your vet for any illnesses or infections.