Why Turtles Swim but Tortoises Don’t

Here’s Why Turtles Swim but Tortoises Don’t

People started to ask why turtles swim, but tortoises don’t after a viral video circulating the internet. It involved a woman believing she was saving a turtle that turned out to be a tortoise by putting it into a local lake. The name turtle is used widely by people to describe our hard-shelled friend’s weather even when, in some cases, it’s a tortoise.

As horrific as that video was to see, the education it has given to folk undoubtedly has to be looked upon as a positive.

The main reason that turtles swim but tortoises don’t is down to their limbs. A turtle has four webbed feet that allow them to swim in the water, unlike a tortoise. Turtles can’t breathe underwater and need to come to the surface to get air.

That is a quick answer but let us look at more detail of what divides them into two species and some question you may have about swimming tortoise.

Why can turtles swim, but tortoises can’t?

There is a lot of confusion about why turtles can swim, but tortoises cant. The reason for this is down to them both looking very similar. They both have hard shells, right? The difference between the two animals can be so little it is difficult for most folk to see.

Many people are left with the question, if they’re so hard to spot the difference, why can one swim and the other cant?

It all lies within the physiology makeup of both animals.

Flippers and Feet

The most significant difference why turtles can swim and tortoises can is the difference in their appendages. Turtles have flippers and small claws that help them move through the water.

Tortoises have bent legs and claws; a tortoise’s legs look more like elephants than a swimming flipper and are more adapted to land movement than propelling them in water.

Comparing the two, you will see that tortoise legs are made more efficient to lift their heavy shell off the ground as they move across land. When inspecting turtle’s webbed feet, they are less successful at raising their shell of the ground when on land. When watching a turtle on land, they drag their shell more than carry it as their feet are not designed for this job.

A tortoise is much more effective in moving over land than a turtle due to these differences.

Shell Shape Diffrences

The next difference between tortoise and turtles that significantly impact one can swim and the other not is their shell shape.

Turtles have a much lighter, flatter shell that makes their shell streamline and much easier to move through the water. Comparing a tortoise’s shell to the turtle, you will see significant differences. Tortoise shells are a much heavier and bigger domed shape that is not conducive to water travel.

Why do people confuse turtles and tortoises?

Our opening to this article talks about a viral video of someone mistaking a tortoise for a turtle. Some people just won’t know that tortoises can’t swim, but there are other reasons people make a mistake.

Location can be a significant reason people make a mistake due to some tortoise liking to nest near the sea. The gopher tortoise is one that nests in and around the dunes of the ocean. However, our turtle friends also nest in the same area, so people can easily mistake the two in these areas.

Often, nests are close to turtle nests, and when baby hatchlings appear and don’t head to the ocean, people can lend a helping hand. The difference in adulthood can be hard to tell, as hatchlings can be even more challenging. A helpful passerby who wants to help the baby turtle to the ocean could be assisting a baby tortoise to their death. As humans, we can do more harm than good, and why we should always leave nature to itself.

Can turtles drown in water?

Yes, turtles can drown in water if conditions go against them. Their lungs are just like others in that they need oxygen. Turtles cant breathe underwater and need to get to the surface to breathe. If anything stops them from getting to the surface they will drown.

Injury and illness can cause a tortoise to drown in water, but it is unlikely to happen if they are healthy. Preditors are also another thing that can cause turtles to drown by not allowing them to surface.

There is no evidence to show that a turtle can hold its breath longer than a tortoise. Also, there is no real answer to how long a turtle can hold its breath. The reason for this is down to age and size make the estimate hard to say.

Will a tortoise drown in water?

Yes, a tortoise in deep water will likely drown to its death. With bend-clawed legs that are not built for swimming, there is little chance of escaping the water. The tortoise has no swimming abilities, and to survive deep water would take a great deal of luck.

Sometimes tortoises don’t drown.

Not all tortoises that find themselves in deep water drown, but this would be more down to luck than the tortoise swimming skills. You only have to search online, and people will tell you about stories of them fishing their tortoise out of their garden pond. Believing they wouldn’t be alive but relieved that they are ok.

No one wants to test how long a tortoise can, in reality, holds its breath, and nor should we ever try it. However, if a tortoise finds itself in deep water, it doesn’t mean instant death.

It also depends on how a tortoise enters the water. If the tortoise is lucky and float, they could float to the water’s edge for an escape route. But in most instances, the outcome won’t be a happy ending.

What is the only tortoise that can swim?

No tortoise can swim, but people mistakenly believe that the Gopher tortoises can swim due to them nesting in dunes next to the sea. You should never put a tortoise in deep water as they will drown.

Can tortoises float?

The general rule is that tortoises can not float, but some can. Age and weight will be a significant factor if a tortoise can float. Also, the stillness of the water in a flat calm pond may have a chance, but it will ultimately come down to luck.

If a tortoise is lucky and floats, they need to hope they quickly drift to land for an escape.

Do tortoises like to swim?

Tortoises don’t like to swim as they know that they cant and will do everything to avoid it. However, tortoises do like to bathe in water, so it is not uncommon to see tortoises bathing in shallow pools or their water dish.

Some pet tortoises love bathing in water, and others will be grumpy when in water and after. We have to clean our pet tortoise, and a bath of water can be dangerous, so like a child, never leave them unattended.

Can baby tortoises swim?

No baby tortoise have no better ability to swim than their adult counterparts. You may see baby tortoises near pools of water as they need to drink, but they don’t swim. If they are accidentally thrown into the water, the result will be desaturase.

A tortoise can hold its breath for a long time; no one knows for sure for how long. Logic tells us that a baby tortoise will have a much shorter period to hold its breath due to its smaller size.


We discovered that if a tortoise enters a deep water body, the result will be devastating, and only turtles can swim. It all comes down to the differences in limbs and shells, and the turtles are more adapted to swimming. Tortoises do have an advantage over turtles on land as their limbs carry their heavy shells much better.

The message is if you ever see a shelled animal, no matter how well you believe you know the difference, leave nature to nature. The last thing we want is another viral video of a tortoise mistakenly being placed in a pool of water.

If you have a pet tortoise, you should be in doubt that your tortoise should never be put into deep water. A shallow bath is fine, and some tortoise will love it and enable your tortoise to get a drink.