How Long Can A Box Turtle Stay Underwater?

Do you know how long a box turtle stays underwater?

Should you be worried if your box turtle seems to stay down for a long time?

If you’re keeping or planning on keeping a pet box turtle, you probably know it will require some fresh water in its enclosure for soaking, drinking, and digestion. 

You might have seen a box turtle kept in a backyard pond, or found one near a lake, or you might have even seen a wild box turtle paddling clumsily in shallow water. 

While it’s natural to think a turtle would be happiest with a body of water deep enough for a swim, the box turtle is safest with a shallow dish of water. 

Unless necessary (like crossing a river or escaping predators), a box turtle will not seek deep water. 

Ensure you are giving your pet turtle the right environment, and the right amount of water, for a long and happy life.

how long can a box turtle stay underwater

How Long Can A Box Turtle Stay Underwater?

A box turtle can stay submerged between 15 and 30 minutes.

Now, there is no good reason for a box turtle, let alone your pet turtle, to be underwater this long. 

Unlike aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles such as the red-eared slider, painted turtles, cooters, and mud turtles, all subspecies of box turtle (except the Aquatic Box Turtle, native to Mexico) lack the webbed feet and smooth shells of their aquatic relatives. 

Box turtles can swim, but you will notice they’re not very adept at it, and they will stay near the surface. 

If you’ve ever seen a sea turtle or freshwater turtle breeze through a pond, you’ll notice the difference right away. 

Certainly, box turtles can’t live full time underwater – they just aren’t built for it. 

How Often Do Box Turtles Swim?

They will stick to shallow areas of lakes and streams unless they are going from point A to point B, or possibly to avoid a predator or other threat.

If a box turtle is caught in deep water and can’t get to dry land, it will tire out, sink to the bottom and yes, drown. 

Although they are considered a terrestrial turtle species, box turtles DO need water in their enclosures to regulate their temperature, stay hydrated, and for proper digestion. 

Water should stay around 75° degrees Fahrenheit (24° C)and should be at least as deep as the nose when retracted. 

You might also need to mist the enclosure to keep the humidity ideal for your specific subspecies of turtle. 

The amount of time your box turtle soaks every day depends on the species – a desert box turtle needs less water and humidity than a Florida box turtle. 

You might notice your box turtle submerge its head – even seem to doze off for a few minutes underwater, but this is nothing to be alarmed about. 

Box turtles only need a shallow place to wade, and water covering their shells is considered a drowning risk for box turtles. 

Baby turtles are also at a much higher risk for drowning because they are more likely to find themselves in too-deep water, are very poor swimmers, much weaker, and could have trouble climbing out of the water onto a basking rock or dry substrate. 

A sloped dish is great for a baby turtle to ensure it can easily enter and exit the water. 

If you ever notice your box turtle over-turned in deep water, or caught underwater, get it out and onto a dry surface immediately. 

There is not much to do if your turtle has been underwater for a prolonged period. 

Set it back on its basking rock, and let it revive itself. 

Consult your veterinarian if your turtle is still experiencing problems. 

Can Box Turtles Swim in Deep Waters?

Box turtles can paddle and keep themselves alive in bodies of water large enough to submerge them completely. 

A box turtle may even sink to the bottom and walk back up to dry land. 

They will never venture out into deep water. 

Box turtles have taller, curved shells much like a tortoise, not the oval, smooth shells allowing aquatic turtles to glide through the water. 

A box turtle will not swim underwater unless it is tiring. 

If you notice your turtle struggling in deep water, remove it immediately. 

Most box turtles can fend for themselves, but any water deep enough to submerge themselves should be considered a drowning risk. 

How Much Water Does a Box Turtle Need? 

Box turtles use the water to cool off, drink, and soak. 

Your pet turtle should be able to fit its entire body in the water tray, and the depth should be about one-third of its shell height. 

Box turtles need a certain amount of humidity to stay healthy and comfortable. 

Check the exact level for your subspecies of box turtle. 

The common box turtle will need a constant humidity of about 65%.

 You made need to mist your indoor enclosure throughout the day to maintain the ideal environment. 

For freshwater turtles, use distilled or mineral water. 

Tap water likely won’t kill it, but in many places worldwide, tap water is filled with fluoride, chlorine, and additives could affect your turtle. 

Chlorine is known to irritate turtles’ eyes and could leave white spots on their shells. 

It’s best to create as natural of an environment as possible for your pet.

You’ll also find box turtles drag debris, defecate, and generally make a mess of their water tray pretty quickly, they should spend a few hours a day soaking, and it’s often a favorite place to eat, so you will want to change your turtle’s water every few days. 

A single adult box turtle shouldn’t require more than a few liters per week. 

What Turtles Can Survive Underwater? 

Many species of turtles have adaptations allowing them to stay underwater for long periods. 

Turtles are reptiles and have lungs just like humans, which means they all have to surface from time to time, though.  

The amount of time a turtle can stay underwater depends on the species, the water temperature, and the turtle’s metabolic rate. 

Box turtles hibernate in the wild in trees, logs, and under the substrate, but other temperate-zone turtles, like the painted turtle, will hibernate in the water. 

With their metabolisms slowed, some turtles can spend months underwater, even the entire winter underwater. 

The Fitzroy river turtle, native to Australia, barely ever surfaces and extracts oxygen from the water through its cloaca. 

Aquatic species, like the leatherback sea turtle, have the ability to stay underwater for hours and have been known to go ten hours without surfacing. 

Common pet turtles with a need for a larger amount of water to swim are:

  • Red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans)
  • African side-necked turtles (Pelomedusa subrufa)
  • Western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii)
  • Common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) 
  • Spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata)
  • Yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta)

These turtles will spend most of their time in the water and will regularly stay submerged for up to half an hour with no problem. 

Can All Turtles Drown? 

Yes, all turtles can drown. 

It might seem impossible for, say, aquatic turtles like the leatherback sea turtle to drown, but it happens, and it usually has to do with people.  

Pet turtles are at risk of drowning if they cannot easily move from the water onto a basking rock, or there are ledges or debris they could get caught on in the enclosure. 

It’s very easy for a box turtle to minimize this risk – simply keep the water tray relatively shallow. 

For other freshwater aquatic turtles, even adept swimmers can drown if they’re caught.  

For wild sea turtles, the biggest culprit for drowning is fishing nets. 

Though sea turtles can spend hours submerged, they can drown if they find themselves caught in nets. 

A turtle can easily be injured by an animal or dragged into the water by a predator in the wild. 

In this case, if turtles are unable to surface due to injury, they will easily drown. 

Final Thoughts

While your pet box turtle can drown in the wrong environment and wrong circumstances, its ability to hold its breath for over 15 minutes and its meager swimming skills means a quick swim across a small pond shouldn’t be life-threatening. 

In the wild, box turtles will venture into deeper water, which they navigate clumsily, but as a pet, your box turtle doesn’t have any reason to find itself wholly submerged. 

Make sure your box turtle has an adequate amount of water for soaking – a shallow tray of distilled water or bottled mineral water is perfect – and it can easily maneuver from its water to a basking rock or dry land. 

Keep an eye on baby turtles who might struggle to leave the water. 

Remember, box turtles live on land and do not need deep water to swim. 

Read up on your subspecies to provide the right humidity and environment for your pet.  

Leave a Comment