How Long Can A Sea Turtle Hold Its Breath?

How Long Can A Sea Turtle Hold Its Breath?

Sea turtles, ancient ocean wanderers that have roamed the seas for over 150 million years since the dinosaurs' time, are truly fascinating creatures. Their resilience and adaptability have allowed them to survive through millennia, captivating the imagination of generations with their epic journey through time and the oceans.


Beautiful Koh Nangyuan island at Koh Tao


Nestled in Thailand's pristine paradise of Koh Tao, known as Turtle Island in Thai due to its shape and historical abundance of turtles, we're privileged to encounter these incredible creatures up close. We couldn't resist exploring the fascinating topic of how long turtles can hold their breath and the remarkable adaptations that allow them to do so. 

Let's explore together! 

While Green and Hawksbill Turtles primarily inhabit Koh Tao's underwater realm, there's always the exhilarating chance of encountering other species, like the Loggerhead or Leatherback, passing through the area. In fact, there are seven distinct sea turtle species found around the world, each with its unique adaptations.

  • Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas)
  • Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata)
  • Loggerhead (Caretta caretta)
  • Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)
  • Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea)
  • Kemp's Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii)
  • Flatback (Natator depressa)

These fantastic creatures are skilled at holding their breath underwater! It's a handy talent that allows them to nap underwater and do their daily turtle activities without interruption.


Green turtle at Aow Leuk dive site, Koh Tao

How can they do that?


Large, powerful lungs:

Sea turtles have relatively large lungs compared to their body size. This enables them to store more air, allowing them to hold their breath longer than many other reptiles.

Cloacal respiration:

This might sound strange, but sea turtles can actually breathe through their cloaca, which is like their back end! This area is rich in blood vessels, allowing for gas exchange underwater. It's essential for taking in oxygen and getting rid of carbon dioxide. Specialized muscles help them move water in and out of their shell, facilitating this exchange. 

Low metabolic rate:

When sea turtles are relaxed or sleeping, they can significantly dial down their metabolic rate. This means they use less oxygen, allowing them to hold their breath for extended periods. It's a clever adaptation that helps them conserve energy and stay submerged when needed. 

Metabolic Adaptations:

Turtles, as reptiles, differ from humans and most mammals because they are ectotherms or cold-blooded creatures, meaning their body temperature mirrors their environment. So, if they're in water at 27°C, their body temperature will also be 27°C. Unlike us, they can't regulate their body temperature internally. 

When submerged in cold water, turtles display an incredible adaptation. Their metabolic rate slows significantly to conserve energy, decreasing heart rate, respiration rate, and overall energy requirements. However, if the water temperature drops below about 10°C, sea turtles can become lethargic and "cold-stunned," making them unable to swim.

While sea turtles rely on their body heat to survive, some species, like the leatherback sea turtle, are better suited to withstand colder environments than others. 

Taking it Slow:

When sleeping, their heart rate drops to a leisurely beat just once every nine minutes. That's the ultimate chill mode compared to our frantic human heartbeats of 80 beats per minute! And as if that wasn't amazing enough, they adeptly redirect blood flow from non-essential organs to prioritize oxygen delivery to vital tissues while catching some underwater Z's. 


Hawksbill turtle at Shark island, Koh Tao


How Long Can Turtles Hold Their Breath?

The time a turtle can hold its breath varies based on several factors including species, size, age, water temperature, and activity level. Typically, they can remain submerged for up to 45 minutes to an hour during their regular activities. However, they usually surface for a quick breath every 6 minutes or so before diving back down. When stressed, they use up oxygen more quickly, necessitating a prompt return to the surface.

Unfortunately, if a turtle becomes entangled in fishing gear like nets, it could drown within minutes if it is unable to break free. On the brighter side, turtles can hold their breath for extended periods during sleep. Some can peacefully sleep for four to seven hours before needing to come up for air!


Terrestrial Skills

Sea turtles have some surprising tricks up their flippers when it comes to land. While they're most at home in the water, they can actually handle a few hours on land. However, it's a bit different for each turtle and depends on their size, age, and environment. Bigger turtles with thicker shells can hang out on land longer since they can retain moisture better. But, staying away from the ocean for too long isn't ideal for these sea-loving creatures as they rely on the sea for hydration, temperature regulation, and protection from predators. So, while they might take a quick land stroll now and then, they must return to the waves before too long.


Green turtle at White Rock, Koh Tao


Explore the top dive sites of Koh Tao, where you're likely to encounter some incredible turtles! Whenever you spot these graceful creatures, take a moment to marvel at their unique adaptations that help them thrive beneath the waves.


Here's your guide to the best spots:

Tanote Bay: This site boasts breathtaking coral formations and is a hotspot for green turtles, often spotted gracefully swimming around the reefs.

Liam Thien: Another vibrant dive site that offers colorful corals and abundant marine life, including green and hawksbill turtles gliding through the currents.

Hin Wong Pinnacle: Dive into impressive depths and vibrant marine ecosystems, where you may encounter hawksbill and green turtles among various sea life.

Hin Ngam & Aow Leuk: Explore diverse coral reefs and encounter juvenile blacktip reef sharks alongside sightings of green and hawksbill turtles.

Shark Island: Adorned with soft purple corals, this unique site is frequented by both hawksbill and green turtles.

White Rock: A bustling marine haven on the west coast, perfect for night dives and turtle sightings.

Twins: Koh Nang Yuan's popular dive spot, offering vibrant coral life and encounters with hawksbill and green turtles during feeding activities.

Buddha Point: is known for its shallow reef and rich variety of corals. Hawksbill and green turtles often visit this area.

Shark Bay: is ideal for snorkeling. It offers encounters with green and hawksbill turtles and blacktip reef sharks.


Join Coral Grand Divers for a fantastic Turtley day of Diving and Snorkeling in Koh Tao!

Five Ways Sea Turtles Are Essential:

  1. Prey Control: Leatherback turtles play a critical role in maintaining balance in marine ecosystems by feeding on jellyfish. Without them, jellyfish populations could surge uncontrollably. Additionally, other turtle species also occasionally consume jellyfish. Since jellyfish prey on fish eggs, the presence of sea turtles helps regulate jellyfish populations, ensuring the survival of fish populations in the sea. It's a delicate balance that underscores the importance of each species in the marine food web.

  2. Guardians of the Reef: The presence of hawksbill sea turtles on coral reefs is crucial for maintaining balance. By consuming sponges, they prevent these organisms from overgrowing and smothering slow-growing corals, which are essential components of healthy reef ecosystems. As coral reefs face increasing threats from climate change and other human impacts, the role of hawksbill turtles in preserving reef health becomes even more vital.
  3. Seagrass Health: Green turtles play a vital role in preserving seagrass beds through grazing, ensuring the health of these ecosystems, which benefit numerous species and sequester carbon.
  4. Beach Ecosystems: Turtle nesting enriches beach soils, providing vital nutrients for coastal vegetation growth.
  5. Crucial Food Source: Hatchlings are a significant food source for various animals, such as birds, fish, and mammals, during nesting seasons.
  6. Important for coastal economies and local communities: Coastal economies thrive on turtle-related tourism activities like watching and scuba diving, which provide jobs and income. Furthermore, many communities deeply value sea turtles as an integral part of their cultural heritage.

Join us for a fantastic Turtley day of Diving and Snorkeling in Koh Tao!

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