Western cultures have long seen the tortoise as symbolic of patience and wisdom under duress. Aesop's fable of The Tortoise and the Hare is a celebration of the tortoise's steadfastness in the face of the speedy hare. The turtle's ability to escape danger by retreating into its shell has made it a powerful symbol of protection, healing, and inner knowledge. Little wonder that many identify with the spirit of the tortoise and make of it a reassuring tattoo design.
Turtle or tortoise for purposes of symbology the difference is semantic, since they're of the same family. A tortoise spends its life in mainly arid terrain, and would probably drown in open water. The turtle can manage both realms of land and sea, swimming by holding its breath. The sea turtle, the largest of this family, rarely leaves the water except to lay its eggs.
Because of its early appearance on the planet as much as 250 million years ago the turtle is often associated with Creator symbolism. Indigenous peoples refer to North America as Turtle Island. According to legend, North America was created on the back of a turtle. In India, the tortoise supported the elephant, who, in turn supported the world.