Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

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The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the couple who were swimming between their anchored sportfisher and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife. They had been splashing each other and she had screamed but now they were just standing, neck-deep on the sand bar. “We’re fine, what is he doing?” she asked, a little annoyed. “We’re fine!” the husband yelled, waving him off, but his captain kept swimming hard. ”Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not ten feet away, their nine-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”

How did this captain know – from fifty feet away – what the father couldn’t recognize from just ten? Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that’s all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew knows what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” she hadn’t made a sound. As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I wasn’t surprised at all by this story. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for, is rarely seen in real life.

The Instinctive Drowning Response – so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D.,  is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water.  And it does not look like most people expect.  There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind.  To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic from the surface drowning can be, consider this:  It is the number two cause of accidental death in children, age 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents) – of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult.  In ten percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening (source: CDC).  Drowning does not look like drowning – Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene Magazine, described the instinctive drowning response like this:

  1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.
  2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

(Source: On Scene Magazine: Fall 2006 (page 14))

This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble – they are experiencing aquatic distress. Not always present before the instinctive drowning response, aquatic distress doesn’t last long – but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue.  They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.

Look for these other signs of drowning when persons are in the water:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Not using legs – Vertical
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back
  • Ladder climb, rarely out of the water.

So if a crew member falls overboard and everything looks OK – don’t be too sure.  Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning.  They may just look like they are treading water and looking up at the deck.  One  way to be sure?  Ask them, “Are you alright?” If they can answer at all – they probably are.  If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them.  And parents – children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.

Note:  Sorry everyone, but I had to shut down the comments.  They were starting to overwhelm the page and cause it not to load for some.

By | 2017-05-18T15:30:02+00:00 May 18th, 2010|gCaptain, Water Safety|2,050 Comments

About the Author:

I work and write and try to stay useful to the people around me. More info here: www.mariovittone.com/about


  1. markd August 1, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    Your article is so valuable to all. I posted it on my Facebook page. I was a lifeguard for six summers and saw what you describe.
    I am giving a copy of your article to the swim staff at my health club.

  2. Mario Vittone August 1, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    Thanks so much!

  3. David August 9, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Once I nearly drowned and I experienced the symptoms so well described here. Thanks for making it more public.

  4. Linda August 31, 2013 at 7:44 am

    Thank you so much! We just joined a pool this year and this makes me feel much better about keeping my child safe.

  5. P September 18, 2013 at 3:14 am

    This helped me recognize a couple wasn’t drowning – but were in “aquatic distress.” Feeling like a bit of a heel, I watched and waited, and was able to help at a good time. Perhaps the life you helped save was my own!

    As an aside, it was only a little while ago that I realized I was now a good enough swimmer that I should learn something about this. I’m glad I did.

  6. Patty Chase-Andres September 28, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    Wow, just reading this made my heart start racing. It brought back the memory of the summer when I was 14 years old (over 40 years ago). This is EXACTLY what happened to me when I nearly drowned. Completely in a vertical position, mouth under water, just my frightened eyes above the water. I was at the local “Harrison Swimming Pool”. I had always played around in the 3 & 4 foot water for a couple of years, but had never ventured to the deep end. I thought I probably could swim in deeper water after all that time. But THANK GOD I had enough sense to ask two of my friends to come with me to the deep end. I told them the truth. I thought I could swim, but I wasn’t sure, that’s why I needed them to come along. I took off swimming from the side of the deep end of the pool, then halfway across my body started going into a vertical position. I just couldn’t seem to get my butt up! It was like I was treading water, but couldn’t get my mouth above the water. I couldn’t say a word, let alone scream. When I started to drown, one of my friends,Tammy, tried to help me. She couldn’t, I started pulling her under. When she told the lifeguard (who was just a high school kid) he did not believe her at first! He thought we were just playing around. When Tammy started crying & cussing him out, he then took her seriously. See, even this young lifeguard was not taught properly to recognize what a drowning person looked like.
    I eventually took swimming lessons a few years later, & at the ripe old age of 19, I could finally swim alone in the deep water. I’m glad I did not let that experience make me forever afraid of water. In my case, it made me determined to learn how to swim. Thanks to Tammy & Roxanne for being there with me, or I might not be here today!

  7. CapnJaques October 3, 2013 at 12:05 am

    When I was in the Boy Scouts we were working on our swimming badge. We were out in a swamp on a camping trip, it was probably about 60 degrees out and the water was freezing. Everyone else was doing fine…I got about halfway on a short swim and my body just froze up. I struggled for a couple of seconds, unable to make a sound, and my body just sank, and I had absolutely no control over what was happening…I just locked up. What was probably a matter of seconds for everyone around seemed like an eternity to me, and just as I was coming to a realization of what was happening I felt someone grab me and start dragging me towards the edge of the water, where they helped me climb out and gave me a towel to wrap around me so I could warm up for the trip back to camp.

  8. Felicia October 15, 2013 at 1:31 am

    Wow!!! What a flare up of emotion. It seems the true colors of individuals have been shown. It’s sad really! The article was wonderfully informative & I’m thankful it was available. I was saved from drowning once & I’m thankful to God that someone knew these very signs to look for…saw them & saved my life. Please continue to inform others….you just never know who it may save!

  9. Amanda G. Sierra October 20, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    I came across your article early this summer and I posted it on Facebook. I think I might post it yearly! It is just so important and can not be repeated enough. In my younger years, I was a lifeguard and a Red Cross swimming and water safety instructor. Though I only worked at a pool (a big pool), it was amazing how many people, young and old, I had to rescue. They always displayed the signs you mentioned. Thank you for sharing your experience and insight on this very important topic.

  10. Nina November 6, 2013 at 5:39 am

    Thank you. This is the reason I’m on patrol at Long Reef!

  11. Emma November 7, 2013 at 2:35 am

    Because telling an interesting, dramatic story makes money while safety videos do not. (If this wasn’t true and safety shows do actually appeal to the general public, then there would be dozens of safety TV shows and segments rather than the plethora of dramatic reality TV shows.)

    I’m not saying that we wouldn’t benefit from having more educational programs such as a “How to tell if someone is drowning/choking/having a stroke/etc.” What I’m saying is that it’s not a TV producer’s fault that depictions of drowning people aren’t more realistic, that the sound of gunshots or explosions aren’t more realistic–if it’s what sells and if it’s what entertains the general public, then they’re going to keep doing it.

    Moreover, TV producers and directors shouldn’t be responsible for teaching the public how to be responsible and safe; that’s a parent’s job, a swimming instructor’s job, and so on.

  12. American expat in Europe February 7, 2014 at 6:01 am

    Thank you. I wish more people would read this. My sister and brother in law allow their small child to bath alone. They get his bath started then leave him. It’s their 3rd child and in their eyes they’ve seen and done it all with kids and have nothing to worry about. HUH? When we visited and my daughter took a bath with her cousin (their boy), I thought they were being looked after. Nope. Went in there to see two 3 year olds alone, bathing and playing without a care in the world. Wtf? Family or not, they are insane and I let them know. Stupid, stupid, stupid behavior.

  13. Thomas February 10, 2014 at 9:51 am

    First off: great article, I didn’t know that before. This should be taught everywhere at schools.
    I have a small gripe though: Isn’t the picture you’re using depicting exactly the opposite of what you’re describing?

  14. feralblue February 17, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    my god – thank you sooo much for posting this – i am thoroughly speechless. . .

    ****** i have taken quite a number of First Aid classes for certificates and have
    been around summer camps (i’m a teacher and a mom) – i have never been
    alerted to this information!!! and this is not good at all!!!!!

  15. feralblue February 17, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    sorry, you every right to state your religious beliefs – but there is no proof of a god, gods or
    anything spiritual (and i have my own beliefs). they are spiritual because they can’t be proved.

  16. Almost Drowned Once April 10, 2014 at 5:39 am

    This is so very true. When I was 13, I once started drowning in my school’s pool and since I was the joker of the class, people in and out of the pool assumed I was playing around. I do remember, I was able to call for help though the magnitude of my vocals was very low, perhaps. Finally, one of the girls came and got me.

    Never even have dipped a toe in water ever since.

  17. What Drowning Really Looks Like June 4, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    […] Earlier this summer I read a post about what drowning really looks like. […]

  18. Saskia June 10, 2014 at 6:34 am

    Thanks for this very useful information! I shared it on my Facebook (in Holland).

  19. Georg June 11, 2014 at 4:21 am

    Thank you for this article. I am father of three and really didn’t know.

  20. mst June 15, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    The Internet is for porn…

Comments are closed.