A bit more than six years ago, when I worked for a company called DreamHost, I went to my first DreamHost holiday party. There were maybe 20 people at that party, and we were seated at the same table in a restaurant, the White Elephant gifts piled up next to the table. One of my co-workers, Glen, told me that the items in the big bag he brought were from a swap meet, so I chose his bag. Inside, along with many other weird items, was a tiny tank containing a tiny turtle.
Thankfully, nobody stole the turtle from me, and I brought the turtle home, and I dubbed him Hurley. I did some research on aquatic turtle care, bought the equipment, and over six years later, he’s still thriving. He’s also grown a bit.
When I first brought him home, he was a bit traumatized. The first few months of his life probably were not ideal for a growing turtle, and he had just been whisked around quite a bit. He didn’t eat for at least a week, until I popped a little bread coated with peanut butter into his tank. He ate well after that.
Anyway, on to a standard aquatic turtle tank setup:
The two lamps on top of the tank are important. The one on the left is a UVA/UVB lamp. It is needed so the turtle absorbs nutrients into its shell. Without it, the turtle will get a condition known as “soft shell.” That condition does what it says on the tin, and means death for the turtle. The lamp on the right is the heat lamp. Turtles are reptiles, which means they cannot regulate their body heat like mammals can. They need a spot where they can get warm, and a spot where they can cool off.
The two basking spots are important. They need to be above the water line so they can get out of the water and dry their shells off, again to prevent the shell from softening. I like to have to spots – one under the UVA/UVB lamp, one under the heat lamp. In the above photo, he is happily basking under the UVA/UVB lamp. He often sleeps under the heat lamp at night.
To the right, outside the tank, is the filtration unit. It is specifically made for turtle tanks. It’s a more high-volume filtration unit made to deal with turtle waste, which is quite a bit more heavy duty than fish waste.
Here’s a closer shot inside the tank. The basking spot under the heat lamp is a floating turtle dock. Turtles tend to like basking spots that can float. It attaches to the side of the tank via suction cups. You can also see the waterfall of the filtration unit. I like waterfall filtration units because they keep the water from getting stale.
That’s about all you need to keep a turtle happy as far as setup. The initial setup can run pretty expensive. I’d say this entire setup was around $300 total, including tank. If you’re just starting up with a tiny turtle, the expense won’t be as much, but keep in mind eventually you’ll need to upgrade.
On the subject of feeding – pet stores and reptile specialty stores have all sorts of pellets and supplements that will keep your turtle healthy. In my turtle’s case, he’s a red-eared slider. So he’s omnivorous, but he’ll get more and more vegetarian as he gets older.
You’ll notice the water level in the tank. It’s enough for him to have a good swim. When you feed a red-eared slider, you drop the pellets into the water, where they prefer to feed. They like to have a bit of a drink with their food. They drink the water they swim in, so it’s important to keep the water clean with a good filter. If you have a good filter, you’ll only need to completely clean the tank once every six months or so. You’ll need to clean it more often if you have a fish tank filter doing the job.
Once you have everything setup, they’re very easy to maintain. I feed my turtle only once a week to keep him at a reasonable size. We live in an apartment, so it’s not feasible to setup a pond for him, and red-eared sliders can get up to a foot in length.
One more thing to keep in mind – turtles have a very long life. There have been instances of red-eared sliders living up to 30 years. Aquatic turtles aren’t as long-lived as tortoises, but you still have to keep that kind of long-term commitment in mind when considering one as a pet.
If you do get a turtle as a pet, I recommend going to a local specialty reptile shop for supplies and advice. Not only is it best to support local businesses, but they’re better stocked and much more knowledgeable than a chain such as Petco.
But, as pets go, Hurley is really low-maintenance. When we go on vacation and have someone keep an eye on the pets, I only have to instruct them to throw some pellets into the tank once a week. He’s not a cuddly pet – reptiles are not like mammals in that way. They don’t really need handling like a mammal. They don’t need cuddling, nor do they really seek it. But they are cool to watch, and it’s an experience to watch them grow and develop. Hurley is not cuddly, but he seems to be very happy when I spend more time in my office, where his tank is located.
He’s also a massive ham for the camera.