Can Sea Turtles Breathe Underwater?

Sea turtles are underwater marine animals and spend most of their lives in the ocean. So, how do they swim for long periods? This might leave you wondering, can sea turtles breathe underwater?

Sea turtles can not breathe underwater. They have to resurface every 4-7 hours for air. They’ll breathe through their cloaca when they can’t resurface for air. This means it absorbs oxygen from the water and releases carbon dioxide.

The answer above mentioned that a sea turtle can breathe through its cloaca. If you’re confused about what that is, keep reading.

This article will go through everything you need to know about sea turtle respiration. We will also answer related questions regarding this topic.

Let’s dive in.

Can sea turtles breathe underwater

Can sea turtles breathe underwater?

Sea turtles can’t breathe underwater. Since they are marine animals, they have many adaptions that allow them to swim without breathing for long periods.

One of these adaptions is holding their breath. Sea turtles can hold their breath for up to 7 hours without resurfacing.

Although this time can depend on the activity of the turtle. Swimming and resting are activities that require a lot less energy than other activities.

When a sea turtle is mating, both sea turtles will need more oxygen than usual. Sea turtles foraging for food need more oxygen as it needs to hunt and find food in small crevices.

Their heart rate slows to aid the conservation of oxygen. A sea turtle’s heart may beat every 9 minutes during this time.

The inability to breathe underwater can also cause problems for the sea turtle. Stressed sea turtles that can’t resurface are at risk of drowning.

Stress can be caused by predation, injury, or entanglement. Sea turtles that are trapped in left behind fishing nets may panic and can’t swim to the surface, causing them to die.

This is why abandoned fishing nets are very dangerous for sea turtles. They are endangering sea turtles and putting other marine creatures at risk as well.

How do sea turtles breathe?

There are 2 ways a sea turtle can breathe. It can breathe through its nares which is another term for nostrils.

Another interesting way it can breathe is through its cloaca, which we mentioned earlier. This means it can breathe through its butt when it can’t resurface for air.

Let’s go into more detail about each method.


The nares are a sea turtle’s nostrils for inhaling and exhaling air. This is what they use when the sea turtle resurfaces for air.

This is the main method of breathing they use throughout the day. A sea turtle that isn’t in danger will use this method and go about its regular routine.

Their regular mode of breathing is similar to ours and other mammals. They have lungs like us, but they have a different structure.

Their lungs are under their carapace and the vertebral column. They also have a trachea (windpipe), which they use to breathe through their nares. One thing they don’t have is a diaphragm.

Humans have a diaphragm, which is a muscle that regulates breathing. The diaphragm helps us breathe and expands our ribcages when we inhale, and when we exhale, it contracts our ribcages.

Sea turtles don’t have diaphragms that control their breathing like most animals with lungs. Their ribcages can’t expand because of their hard shells.

Instead of a diaphragm, they have a thin muscle that allows their body to squeeze air in and out. This means that they can breathe without their body having to expand and contract.

Cloacal respiration

Cloacal respiration is an interesting method of taking in oxygen. This means that they can breathe through their butts!

When a sea turtle can’t resurface for air, for example, when they are sleeping, cloacal respiration is performed. This is when it absorbs water and releases carbon dioxide from water by using its cloaca.

The cloaca is the opening underneath a sea turtle’s tail and has many purposes. It is used for excretion and reproduction.

The opening of the cloaca takes water and stores it into pouches called the cloacal bursae. These are lined with small, finger-shaped figures that make the surface area larger.

When the oxygen has been absorbed, it is taken to the sea turtle’s cells and reacts with glucose. This glucose will come from the food the sea turtle has eaten prior.

After the reaction, the sea turtle has to expel the water and carbon dioxide products as these are waste products. This can be done through the lungs, cloaca, gills, or skin.

All animals that breathe need clean air, so they don’t damage their lungs. This is also true for sea turtles and many other ocean animals who use water for respiration; they need clean water.

Water degradation and pollution are massive problems for sea turtle species. Disturbed water sources can decrease a sea turtle’s life expectancy.

How long can sea turtles stay underwater?

This time can vary because of factors like the type of sea turtle and what activity it is doing. For example, sleeping sea turtles can stay underwater for 7 hours.

Sea turtles often hold their breath for up to 1 hour whilst doing regular activities. This includes foraging and swimming in general.

When they are diving, they dive for around 4 to 5 minutes. They will resurface in between dives every few seconds.

In the winter, sea turtles can also go for longer without resurfacing. This is helpful for them, as they are cold-blooded reptiles that cannot keep themselves warm.

Going up to the surface more than they need to can be dangerous. This puts them at risk of predation and cold-stunning, which is a serious life-threatening condition.

The sea turtle has many adaptions to preserve oxygen. This includes their heart beating slower to save oxygen in their bodies.

Stressed sea turtles’ oxygen supply will deplete quicker, putting them at risk of drowning. This is common for sea turtles that have been entangled in ghost nets.

Can sea turtles drown?

Sea turtles can drown because they have lungs. Although when sea turtles drown, they don’t die right away.

After a sea turtle has drowned, it will enter a comatose state. During this time, they have a 50% chance of making a full recovery.

There are many signs that a sea turtle has drowned. This includes:

  • Being in a comatose state
  • Lack of reflexes
  • Water in lungs
  • Tissue alterations in lungs

The most common way a sea turtle has drowned is a stressed sea turtle being caught in ghost gear. This includes nets, lines, traps, and pots abandoned by fishers and fisheries.

Although a sea turtle has a large oxygen supply, it can go down in minutes. The sea turtle has adaptions to stop it from going down, but these don’t work in stressful situations.

Another way sea turtles can drown is during mating. When sea turtle mates, a male attaches itself to the shell of a female.

The female sea turtle has to swim with the added weight of her mate whilst fighting off other male sea turtles. This can be difficult for the female as mating takes several hours.

In conclusion

Sea turtles are unable to breathe underwater as they have lungs. They have adaptions that allow them to go up to 7 hours without breathing.

A sea turtle has 2 methods of breathing. It can breathe through its nares which is the usual method of breathing.

It can also breathe from its cloaca, which it does during sleeping and the winter months. This is an interesting adaptation that many animals don’t have.

Sea turtles can hold their breath for 1 hour when doing regular activities like foraging and swimming. They can also dive for 4 to 5 minutes and resurface between breaths.

Sea turtles can drown because they can’t breathe underwater. They often drown after being caught in ghost gear or during mating.

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