Can Box Turtles Swim? (Not Very Well, We’ll Tell You Why)

Can box turtles swim?

The short answer is yes! But box turtles are unique creatures that have equally odd lifestyle needs.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • If box turtles can swim
  • Whether or not they swim underwater
  • Which turtles like swimming
  • How to handle your pet box turtle

Let’s jump right in!

eastern box turtle swimming in water

Can Box Turtles Swim?

Key Takeaway:

Box turtles can indeed swim. However, box turtles don’t swim quite well, unlike pond turtles–another popular turtle breed.

Box turtles typically swim if they need to get somewhere else or need to cool off.

See what happens when you put a box turtle in water in this short video:


Box turtles have long been confused with tortoises and a large number of people insist on calling them tortoises. They are in fact turtles and believe it or not, they’re more closely related to pond turtles than anything else!

In the wild, you’ll typically find box turtles soaking in a shallow watering hole, at best.

How Do Turtles Swim?

Many turtles are aquatic reptiles, although the box turtle is not.

Turtles that swim use webbed feet to paddle. Most will dive underwater, paddle around for a bit foraging for food, and then come to the surface to breathe. They use their legs by extending them to propel them through the water, much like humans. But their webbed feet make it easier to maneuver through the water.

After taking a quick dip, turtles seek refuge in their basking spot. They’ll stop there to relax and raise their internal temperature allowing them to soak up the full amount of nutrients from their light source.

This is one reason why your pet turtle should have a platform to bask on and recharge.

How Long Can They Swim?

Since box turtles aren’t an aquatic breed of turtle, they don’t enjoy swimming for long periods.

If box turtles swim, they will stay at the surface. This is because when box turtles swim, they’re doing it because they’re trying to get somewhere else, not because they enjoy it.

This is different from sliders, cooters, and painted turtles, who spend most of their days swimming at the bottom of ponds, rivers, creeks, and lakes. You just aren’t likely to see a box turtle swimming in the middle of a large lake. But you can see cooters and sliders, to be sure.

So, just like humans who require lots of practice to get good at things, the box turtle isn’t a great swimmer because it simply doesn’t do it that often.

Do Box Turtles Live in Water?

While box turtles swim, they do not live in water. Water is important to their habitat, but they don’t spend all their time submerged in it.

One reason why they hang out near lots of water is that they need to stay hydrated. They also tend to live in warmer locations, which increases their need for water.

Fresh, clean water helps box turtles stay healthy, hydrated, and live longer.

Should I Let My Box Turtle Swim?

Box turtles have slightly webbed feet. They don’t want an aquarium full of water, however. Give them a bowl or container filled with a few inches of water to keep them happy. It’s ideal to give them distilled or purified water.

Can My Box Turtle Drown?

Because turtles cannot breathe underwater, they can drown. However, adult turtles are smart and have a unique system of maintaining healthy oxygen levels by floating at the water’s edge or surfacing to breathe. It is rare to see a turtle drown, though.

Despite this, you should still be aware that your turtle can get sick when overexposed to water. Again, an appropriate basking spot helps your turtle dry off and shed their old shells. Issues like shell pyramiding is a condition that causes the top of their shell to grow abnormally.

Even though too much water can be bad, balanced hydration plays a critical role in their overall health. If you have an aquarium for your turtle, ensure you use clean, filtered water regularly. You can change their water every week and use a reptile-friendly filtration system. Water care is an important part of taking care of your turtle.

Get to know your turtle and its species before you make any decisions regarding water usage. You want a happy, healthy pet, and water care helps!

Can Box Turtles Swim Underwater?

Yes! Box turtles can swim underwater and will stay submerged for up to 30 minutes at a time! Even still, there is no good reason that your pet turtle will need to stay underwater for that long.

Box turtles don’t have the intricate webbing on their feet that their cousins do, like the red-eared slider or mud turtle. They also lack the smooth shells of more aquatic breeds of turtles. Box turtles prefer to stay on the surface and don’t dive into deep water often.

You just aren’t likely to catch a box turtle swimming underwater for long periods. If their survival depended on it, they would of course, dive down to swim away. Otherwise, you won’t likely catch them doing so.

box turtle head on the water

Which Turtles Like To Swim?

So, since we know that the box turtle essentially swims out of necessity, we’re left wondering, which turtles like to swim?

Below are a few turtle species that enjoy paddling around in the water.

Red-Eared Slider

The most widely adopted and sold pond turtle in the US is the Red-Eared Slider turtle. They are available as 4-inch juvenile sliders in pet stores, but you can also find them through breeders. They grow to be nearly a foot in length. If you put them in an aquarium, make sure that it is at least 75 gallons for the two of them. They enjoy a water temperature in the upper 70s and a tank temperature in the 80s.

Painted Turtle

Painted turtles are not quite as tough as the Red-Eared Slider, nor is it as sizeable. They grow to be around 10 inches long, and their shells are covered in unique patterns with yellow and red lines. They thrive in aquatic environments and would give any snake a run for its money in the water.


There are multiple species of Cooter pond turtles, and many can reach up to 17 inches in length. This breed looks like the Red-Eared turtle but doesn’t quite have the same flashy coloring. The Cooter also has notched marginal scutes and a higher domed shell than the Slider species.

Map Turtles

Map Turtles are attractive but don’t make as good of pets as the Cooter or Slider. They prefer to live in or around moving water and don’t enjoy ponds. When mature, they reach up to 12 inches in length. The fine lines of their shell look like a map, giving them their name. Maps are also referred to as the Sawback.

Stinkpot Musk Turtle

The Musk turtle is given its name because of the odor they secrete from their glands. This skunk of the turtle world is smaller and only requires a 30-gallon tank to swim around in. They have a high-domed shell that’s brownish gray in color with yellow lines on their face.

How Much Water Do Box Turtles Need?

So, we’ve answered whether or not box turtles swim, but how much water do they need?

A standard rule to follow is to give your turtle enough water to…

  • Cover a few inches in the tank.
  • Just enough water so your box turtle can fit their entire shell underneath.
  • Not too much that they have to swim constantly.

It’s also important to dechlorinate your water. Above all, don’t fill your aquarium full of water. They don’t like it and need a dry place to eat. Don’t exceed a few inches of water!

How Frequently Should I Let My Box Turtle Soak in Water?

Box turtles should soak in water 2-3 times every week. Use a shallow pan of lukewarm water to let them soak.

Again, double-check the water depth and temperature before placing your turtle in it. They can drown if you leave them in the water, and they do burn easily if the water is too hot.

Can Box Turtles Float?

Many experts believe that box turtles don’t swim but float instead. Their webbed feet don’t allow them to swim like Olympians, but they can get around quite well. Their paddling skills are impressive for a species that doesn’t enjoy swimming.

Do Box Turtles Enjoy Being Held?

No, box turtles aren’t a big fan of being held, but each turtle is different and has its own handling preferences. Some turtles may climb onto the owner’s hand, while others will squirm away.

The best way to tell if a turtle likes being held is to try it and see how they react. If they wiggle away from you, they probably don’t like it. Don’t fret too much about being bitten; box turtles typically don’t bite but may nip if they’re anxious.

You won’t need to provide your turtle with toys to play with, either. Simply give them a clean, healthy, appropriate habitat, and they’ll do fine.

What’s The Right Way To Hold A Box Turtle?

Turtles are delicate creatures. They have thin shells that are easy to crack or break, and their legs are fragile. When you hold your pet turtle, do so with care. Here are a few tips for holding your turtle the right way.

First, make sure that your pet turtle is clean. Wash your hands before handling them to avoid any issues with cuts or infections you may have.

Second, support your turtle’s shell with your hand. You can cup your hand underneath the shell or put your hand on top of the shell. Either way, hold on to prevent dropping your hard-shelled friend.

Next, avoid any sudden or jerky movements which could scare or hurt your pet turtle.

As you hold your turtle, ensure they are level with the ground. You should never hold them upside, sideways, or in any position that is not typical for them. Also, don’t hold them too tightly, as this could prevent them from moving their legs, leading to injury.

Once you’re done holding your turtle, put them back down safely. Don’t drop them, as this could lead to fatal injuries.

If you’re planning to move your turtle to someplace new, place it in a box large enough to move in but not too big to slide in transit. Put a lid on the container so they don’t try to escape.

Additionally, smaller turtles should be held by cupping your hands around the shell and supporting the turtle’s body with your fingers. You can then hold the turtle by the edges of the shell and be careful not to squeeze them too hard.

A mid-sized turtle should be held by the sides of the shell or by their back legs. However, again, don’t squeeze too hard, as it could injure your turtle.

Large turtles, however, can be held by the back legs or shell alone. You can support the body with the hand you’re not using to hold onto its shell.

As always, though, wash your hands after handling your turtle. Their shells carry bacteria that can be harmful if ingested.

box turtle under water

Keep Your Box Turtle Happy!

Box turtles are interesting pets that are fun to care for if you know what you’re doing. They aren’t considered aquatic turtles, but you can keep them happy with a bit of water in their tank.

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