Do Rattlesnakes Swim?

Do Rattlesnakes Swim -Rattlesnake in Water
© Tim Malek/

Written by Brandi Allred

Updated: October 14, 2023

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Imagine you’re taking a nice, relaxing dip in a cool lake on a hot day. You look over, and there’s a rattlesnake swimming towards you. What do you do? And why is there a snake in the water, rattlesnakes can’t swim, can they?

That’s the question we’re here to answer, along with a few others. If you live in North America, particularly in the desert southwest regions of the United States and Mexico, then you’re probably familiar with rattlesnakes. There are 56 known species of rattlesnake — 53 in the genus Crotalus and three in the genus Sistrurus, and they all have rattles.

Some are more dangerous than others, but, fortunately for us, none of them seek out humans as meals. That’s not to say that rattlesnakes aren’t dangerous, they are, and they should be treated with respect if encountered.

Like many species of wild animal, rattlesnakes are capable of adapting to many different environments, but does that include lakes, rivers, or oceans? Here, we’ll learn more about rattlesnakes and where they live, then take a look at whether or not they sink, or swim. Then, we’ll take a deep dive and find out if rattlesnakes can bite while swimming, and whether or not they can swim in the ocean. After that, we’ll talk a little more about what you should do if you encounter a rattlesnake, and why they’re important to the natural ecosystems of the planet.

What is a Rattlesnake?

Rattlesnakes While HIking - Timber Rattlesnake

Rattlesnakes grow from two to eight feet and are venomous with fangs at the front of their jaws.

©Joe McDonald/

Rattlesnakes are a type of New World pit viper. They range in size from just two feet long to over eight feet long. Their typical prey includes mice, rats, prairie dogs, gophers, birds, rabbits, lizards, and even other snakes. They’re most active in the spring, summer, and fall months. Most species brumate throughout the winter in dens that may contain hundreds of other snakes. They’re recognizable by the rattles on the ends of their tails, their triangular heads, and the enormous pair of retractable fangs at the front of their mouth.

Where Do Rattlesnakes Live?

Rattlesnakes might be associated with the desert, but they’re actually found throughout North America, Central America, and the northern half of South America. They’re capable of surviving in deserts, grasslands, shrublands, forests, and even swamps. Rattlesnakes don’t do well in intense heat or intense cold, so they aren’t found in alpine regions like mountains. This surprising range means that not only do rattlesnakes live all over, but they also come into contact with water frequently.

Can Rattlesnakes Swim?

Can Rattlesnakes Swim - Rattlesnake in Lake

Rattlesnakes are not as aquatic as other snakes like cottonmouths but can swim.

©Clint Lockwood/

It may seem strange, but rattlesnakes can, and do, swim. In fact, they’re good swimmers. Unlike anacondas, they don’t spend their lives in the water, but they’re more than capable of crossing a stream, or even a lake, to get to where they’re going. 

Because rattlesnakes are cold-blooded, they’re not likely to swim in high, alpine lakes unless something forces them to take the plunge. Rattlesnakes swim to find food, pursue mates, or find a new place to live. They don’t swim to hunt, so fish don’t have to worry. 

Can Rattlesnakes Bite While Swimming?

Rattlesnakes are pit vipers, they rely on their venomous bite to immobilize and kill prey. A rattlesnake strike is incredibly fast, but requires they coil up before striking. Rattlesnakes that are stretched out long, like a ruler, can’t effectively strike. When they swim, they have to stretch out like this and use all of their muscles to stay afloat. So, while rattlesnakes are capable of swimming, they’re not able to bite at the same time.

With that being said, it’s best not to approach any snake you see in the water. Just because they’re not in the best position to bite doesn’t mean they won’t act to defend themselves if threatened. Do not attempt to handle, catch, touch, or pick up a waterborne rattlesnake.

Do All Rattlesnakes Swim?

Not only can all rattlesnakes swim, but all snakes are capable of swimming. Even those who live in the driest deserts could swim if they needed to. Snake bodies are particularly well adapted for propelling themselves through the water. So, no matter what species of rattlesnake you’re looking at, remember that it can swim through the water just as easily as it can move over the land.

Can Rattlesnakes Swim in the Ocean?

Rattlesnakes have no problem swimming in saltwater. They can swim equally well in freshwater as well as the ocean. In fact, rattlesnakes often swim across salty waters in places like Florida in order to get from land mass to land mass. They may be good swimmers, but that doesn’t mean that rattlesnakes cross oceans; they generally swim only short distances, and only when necessary.

What to Do if You Encounter a Rattlesnake in the Water

Can Rattlesnakes Swim - Venomous Snake Caution Sign

Rattlesnakes are found across much of the United States and live in a variety of habitats.

©Jeff W. Jarrett/

Let’s say you’re swimming in a lake, or even in shallow coastal waters, and you see a rattlesnake swimming by. What do you do? 

The answer depends on which way the snake is going. If it’s coming towards you, get out of its way. Remember, the snake isn’t hunting you, it’s just trying to get from point A to point B. Don’t try to touch it or interfere with it, even a swimming snake can still bite if it gets desperate. As long as you’re a safe distance away, sit back relax, and enjoy the privilege of seeing something so special and rare.

Rattlesnakes and the Environment

Whether you see a rattlesnake swimming or slithering along the ground, it’s important to remember that it’s a dangerous wild animal, and should be treated with caution and respect. Unless they’re coming into your yard, or posing a direct threat to you, your children, or your pet, rattlesnakes should be left alone. They’re important parts of the ecosystem; rattlesnakes are responsible for keeping local rodent populations culled. Without them, small mammals like mice and rabbits would quickly overpopulate, eat everything in sight, and then starve.

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About the Author

Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She holds degrees in English and Anthropology, and spends her free time writing horror, scifi, and fantasy stories.

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