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.

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By | 2017-05-18T15:30:02+00:00 May 18th, 2010|gCaptain, Water Safety|2,048 Comments

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  • hti234

    I wrote an essay about the near drowning and was told by my professor that I had been hallucinating. I was not. I know what I saw.

    BWAHAHAHAHA
    Yes, because people’s hallucinations have a sign plastered on them that reads “THIS IS A HALLUCINATION”, and everything else that doesn’t and looks real, yet is not observed by anything or anybody else, must be real! Surely your hallucinations are so different from millions of others’ hallucinations because of your religion! Even though they experienced the exact same feelings of realism, surely your hallucinations are actually real!

    Boy, oh boy. What a textbook example of begging the question.

  • Amanda Carter Stockton

    When I was 5 or 6 years old, I was drowning almost within arms reach of a lifeguard who was in the water with me. I could not yell, scream, or wave my arms because I was too busy trying to stay above water. If my mother had not been watching me like a hawk and noticed my strange behavior, I would not be here today. This information is priceless information for parents, caretakers, and lifeguards. Thanks!

  • OceanicMedic

    Mario, as a Medic in Florida, at a highly popular vacation spot, I can say with certainty that thrashing and panicking is the TELL-TALE sign that someone is either about to drown or be saved from drowning. In my 6 years as a medic, I have witnessed 2 people drown firsthand and they were flailing and screaming for help, only to go under moments later and never resurface. On the other hand, witnesses described the ones I that were already dead, as having been screaming for help just prior to going under. I hope this article doesn’t mislead people. I did read about your “aquatic distress” but that is a technicality – A.D leads directly to drowning.

  • OceanicMedic

    By the way, it is a great article.

  • John Stroup

    Knowing this, I guess instinctively, helped me help a boy, once, just excape drowning while still sorta swimming/aquatic distress, save himself on the Sacramento River. Thanks for putting it together and helping so many parents save their kids! #fb

  • OceanicMedic – you witnessed – both times – what is mentioned in the article as “aquatic distress,” that things that CAN come before drowning (usually when the victim is a swimmer who tired) but rarely is present in non-swimmers and small children. It is not just a technicality. I appreciate your experience base, but victims going straight to IDR and skipping completely the AD phase is very (very) well documented in thousands of cases and also something I have witnessed in my time (significantly longer than 6 years) in the popular vacation spot of Florida.

  • Thanks.

  • OceanicMedic – you witnessed – both times – is not a technicality. Aquatic Distress CAN come before drowning (usually when the victim is a swimmer who tired) but rarely is present in non-swimmers and small children. Aquatic Distress can also last for minutes – whereas the IDR is only 20-60 seconds.

    I appreciate your experience base, but please listen to me on this one. You can always learn something new. The key is not to discount your experience, but always remember that you could be wrong. Victims going straight to IDR and skipping completely the AD phase is very (very) well documented in thousands of cases and also something I have witnessed in my time (significantly longer than 6 years) in the popular vacation spot of Florida.

    You’ve been at it for 6 years – please keep it up. But when a guy who has been doing it for 30 tells you that another guy that has been doing it for 50 says something might be true….go ahead and give us the benefit of your doubt.

  • Thanks (also – read some of the comments below from people who saw it just the way Dr. Pia described, or experienced it personally the same way. There are literally hundreds of them here.)

  • robertsmom2

    Great information, especially with schools letting out for the summer. Thank you! I never would have suspected a thing.

  • David

    This article gets it EXACTLY right. While lifeguarding I rescued a drowning child who behaved exactly as this article describes. I had already been watching her because she was clearly not a strong swimmer, and she and I were making eye contact until the moment her head went under water. Fortunately, I was only about 10 yards away and was able to jump in and pull her to safety without too much difficulty. Too bad none of what this article discusses is ever taught in lifeguard class.

  • Ilse

    Something like that it happened to my 4 years old boy. Thanks God a friend of mine saw him and pick him up safe. Excellent article. Very helpful. Congrats!

  • Carrie

    I had not idea and my nephews and nieces nicknamed me Auntie Safety!

  • R Lee

    Hi Mario,

    Reading this brings back memories of cousin and me at the giant water fountain (for lack of a better word) back home in Boston, MA. We were in the water just splashing and talking, I forgot what we were talking about but there was a young boy RIGHT NEXT TO US. He wasn’t even a foot away, he was RIGHT NEXT TO US. I was watching him but mostly focusing on my cousin. I thought the boy was trying to swim. He was looking right at me but wasn’t saying anything. Then my cousin shouted he’s drowning! And he was! I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him up to me and stood him up then he started to cry. It broke my heart but I’m sensitive anyway. I walked him back to the grassy area where his mother was and asked him if he was okay. I told his mother what had happened and she took him and I went back to where my cousin. And the wild part of that was the water wasn’t that deep at all! If anyone has ever been to the Boston Commons it is THAT fountain in the middle of the park.

    This is something that truly needs to reprinted, reread, “re” anything, over and over and over again.

    To this day I still remember that small boy and those piercing blue eyes and how scared he looked and it was over 30 years ago. I am so glad that I was there RIGHT NEXT TO HIM but even more appreciative and grateful that my cousin was able to recognize what was really happening. Because I didn’t.

  • Tapati McDaniels

    1. Gives experience level. Says this article is correct, people quietly sink under the surface, movies have it all wrong (also Baywatch). Lifeguards are there to watch for people actually drowning.

    2. Always take a float, that’s why they are there.

    3. If you have a pool, get a fence and even better, an alarm
    system. With adults you have 3-5 minutes to save them but with children 1.5-2 minutes, it can happen while you answer a quick phone call. Children’s water balance is poor.

    4. Learning to float on their backs can and have saved kids’
    lives (gives examples).

    5. Water is our friend if we learn how to survive. Nothing
    feels better than saving lives. I support you in your effort to save lives by educating people.

  • Tapati McDaniels

    I nearly drowned when I was two and a half years old. I had a life vest on but it brought me up under a dock where there was no clearance to breathe–too close to the water. Fortunately my family saw me go into the water and my grandpa jumped in and saved me but I lost consciousness first. It took years to over come my fear of the water and learn to swim. Thanks for spreading the word. I’m sure it has saved lives and will continue to.

  • summer is coming

    When I was a kid, I picked up a toddler doing this exact same thing. Nobody else noticed her and I just thought she was uncomfortable, not drowning.

  • By your logic, explain that you are not now hallucinating.

  • steve_cummings

    Excellent article, this should become a TV advert to raise awareness on such an important issue.

  • CaliforniaMom

    Mario, I wanted you to know this article saved a life yesterday. A friend posted it on Facebook and I read it. The very same day, I was at our daughter’s class pool party. I watched her best friend jump in with a swim noodle. When she landed, the noodle floated away. Her friend was there in the water, not making “help!” sounds or loud movements. Just quiet, upright, with head barely above the water. She wasn’t going anywhere. As I saw this, I thought, “This is JUST what I read about in the article!” I jumped in with my clothes on to get her. If I hadn’t read your article, I wouldn’t have thought drowning because she wasn’t being dramatic.

    Thank you so much for writing this! It really made a difference for one child yesterday.