Can Tortoises Swim?

One of nature’s most interesting looking creatures is the tortoise.

This slow-moving reptile can be found in zoos, homes, and really anywhere out in warm climates.

One of the most asked questions when it comes to these creatures is, can tortoises swim? 

Before we can answer this, it’s helpful to know a little bit about the tortoise and how it differs from its commonly confused with cousin, the turtle.

Let’s explore if tortoises can swim and learn about what makes these creatures so unique.

Tortoise vs. Turtle 

Tortoises and turtles look the same and behave much the same, but the tortoise and its close cousin the turtle are two different creatures.

For starters, not all turtles are tortoises, but all tortoises are turtles. The word “turtle” is generally used to describe any reference to a reptile with a shell on its back.

Shell Shape

When it comes to a tortoise and a turtle, the differences lie in their body and shell. Tortoises have a more rounded shell that is domed, whereas a turtle has a thinner, flatter shell that is designed to be water dynamic. 

Arms and Legs

There is a difference in the forelegs and high legs between the two as well. Tortoises are much larger than turtles, and you can see this is their club-like forelegs and their “elephantine” hind legs.

Turtles have legs that resemble flippers while some turtles have webbed legs. This lighter, flappier shape allows them to glide through the water and swim. 

Water or Land? 

One of the main differences is that turtles like sea turtles spend most of their time in the water, while tortoises will spend most of their time on land. 

You are What You Eat

You will almost always find tortoises on land grazing on greens as they are predominantly vegetarians. Turtles, on the other hand, are omnivores

Can Tortoises Swim? 

One would think that because both tortoises and turtles are similar in so many ways, they both can be found swimming in waters. The reality is, turtles were built for swimming and spending most of their time in the water while tortoises were not

The clawed toes and bent legs of tortoises weren’t designed for swimming. Instead, their stumpy elephant-like hind legs are designed for travel on land.

The strong legs of a tortoise can lift up its heavy body for movement on the ground and don’t offer the same level of support in the water. 

On the other hand, turtles can have a difficult time walking on land as they often need to drag themselves across the land because their legs are more effective at being flippers, not carrying heavyweight.

Overall, because of how the two are built, Can tortoises swim? For the most part, the answer is no.

Can a Tortoise Drown in Water? 

Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

Both turtles and tortoises need air to survive. Some turtles can hold the air longer than others, so being in the water for an extended period of time is not always an issue.

With tortoises, once they are in the water, it can be incredibly difficult for them to get out because of their inability to swim. Because of this, they are susceptible to drowning. 

Many baby turtles and tortoises will hatch in the same general area. Often, people can mistake turtles and tortoises, like the baby gopher tortoise. If they come across a baby gopher tortoise, they might make the critical mistake of putting it in a nearby ocean or lake mistaking it for a turtle when it’s not. 

Tortoises surviving in water all depends on the circumstances. If the body of water is calm, there is a chance that the tortoise can float its way back to land, but that is usually rare.

Where Do Tortoises Live? 

The popular Galapagos tortoise that roams the Galapagos has fed the misconception that tortoises roam only that region of the world. Tortoises can be found all over the world.

They live in climates that are warm enough for them to breed, so islands and tropical areas are ideal. You can find different breeds on every continent except for Antarctica.  

Harriet the Tortoise

It’s worth noting that there is one tortoise that stands out against all the others in the tortoise world. Her name is Harriet the Tortoise. 

Harriet the Tortoise was the beloved pet of the world’s most loved crocodile hunter, Steve Erwin. At the end of her life, she spent her time in the Australia Zoo based in Queensland. 

What makes Harriet an iconic tortoise is her incredible lifespan. At 176 years of age, Scientists and zoologists believe her to be one of the oldest living animals on Earth. 

Along with her famous owner and long life, legend has it that Harriet’s may have been one of the three Galapagos tortoises removed from the Galapagos Islands by Charles Darwin in 1835. 

While there are some disputes to this claim, Harriet’s story that she made the trek on the HMS Beagle on the historic voyage is as notorious as Harriet’s existence.

Interesting Facts About the Tortoise

  • Just like Harriet the Tortoise, tortoises can live very long lives. Many can live well past 100 years of age. 
  • The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes a Madagascar radiated tortoise, Tui Malila, as the longest living tortoise. Tui Malila lived up to 188 years. 
  • With many tortoises, it is hard to tell the gender. With certain breeds, you need to wait until they get a certain age to tell accurately. 
  • A group of tortoises is called a “creep.”
  • You can tell where a tortoise came from based on its shell color. The lighter the shell, the warmer its country of origin is. 
  • Tortoises sniff out their foods by using the room of their mouth to smell. 

Final Thoughts

Tortoises are certainly one of the world’s most fascinating creatures. Now that you know a little bit more about these beautiful land roamers, be sure to share your knowledge, and this article, with someone you know who’s ever wondered, “can tortoises swim?” 

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