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

About the Author:

  • I LOVE getting these comments. I’ll pass it to Frank Pia who is also interested in how his work is changing the collective wisdom on drowning. Great job, Mom!

  • CP

    Years ago I saw a man behaving like this in the water. I asked my husband and our friend to go see if he was ok. They pulled him out of the lake. When telling the story I have always said that this man was near drowning. After learning about the Instinctive Drowning Response, I now realize that this man was drowning. They saved his life. When they got him out he was unresponsive but breathing. It seemed to take forever for the ambulance to get out to the lake but they finally arrived. People never know when they will be in a situation where there is not a trained lifeguard. This man was two feet from safety and could not get there.

  • tiny diver

    A brilliant and informative article, thanks. Can’t believe comments ended up as a debate about God though – completely out of context here. I did my First Aid and Rescue Diver training last November, partly because of all the children who drowned last year, but also because it seems an essential part of diving. This training would not be a huge amount of help, if I couldn’t recognise when a person is drowning – I am sure your article will result in saved lives Mario.

  • biancake

    this is amazing, now I know! 😀

  • Nicole

    Is that the alanis morissette definition of ironic?

  • Michelle

    We are leaving tonight for vacation with the extended family to the beach for a week. I am sending this to everyone to watch. Thank you!

  • guest

    My son died drowning in a gorge in Ithaca. There were people around and after reading this, I realize they probably had no idea what was happening. How do I communicate the dangers of unsupervised swimming like that in the famous gorges of Ithaca/ Cornell? There are random signs saying it is dangerous but not consistent..and no life saving devices there..most seem to not want to talk about it for fear of litigation and/or drop in tourism and enrollment in local colleges and universities. Pools, beaches, lakes are discussed but not gorges or the like…I cannot get my son back but I can try to not have this happen to others. Thank you. a quite broken hearted Mom who still has a little fight in me..

  • Sailorcurt

    @TommyLee: That’s a really silly comment. The “comparison” you decry, is nothing more than an evaluation of the relative danger posed by differing hazards. You state one of the many reasons for the fact that backyard pools are a greater safety hazard to children than guns as if the reason renders the fact immaterial.

    For whatever reason, the fact is, from a statistical standpoint, pools are significantly more hazardous to children in the home than firearms.

    That’s not a condemnation of pools or firearms, it’s nothing more than evidence that if you choose to have a pool (or a firearm) on your property, treat it with the respect it deserves and don’t take the attendant responsibilities and hazards for granted.

  • Nononana

    Well, we can get all philosophical and talk about life being an illusion, but lets not. No one else saw this Jesus except someone who was in an oxygen deprived state, making him/her an unreliable source.

    However, we are all seeing this post and commenting on it, sharing it on facebook with people who we know in “real life,” supporting a reasonable expectation that this is really happening (unless you don’t believe your baseline everyday life experiences are reality). Unless you believe this is one huge collective hallucination than that’s enough proof for me that I am not currently hallucinating.

    Someone who is about to die due to an oxygen deficit (which we know as scientific fact can cause hallucinations) is most likely conflating a lifeguard and Jesus. Do yourself a favor and google Occam’s Razor.

  • Rosemary

    After reading your article, I had to say you are so right
    on. I was about seven or eight when this happened to me. I could not swim and
    was wading in the Ohio River and, what you would say a step off, when I went under, everything your article said happened to me. Since there was a group of us no
    one saw what was happening until my Aunt had seen this and came to me just in
    time is the only reason I am here today.

    This came in handy years later when I was at a pool with
    some parents and we were talking but still watching each other’s children. I
    have a habit of always looking in the water if there are children swimming…
    one little 4 year old girl, who had just learned how to swim, was doing well
    with the others. She then got out of the
    pool, jumped in, and was stuck where she was and trying to swim and not getting
    anywhere, her head was above water with her mouth below looking bewildered,
    this brought back old memories of what happed to me. I told the parents that
    the child was not moving and needed help. We jumped in and helped her; she was
    ok after the initial shock.
    Sure enough, that was I, de-ja vu all over again.

    I wish more people knew of this, so many more lives would be
    saved.

    Keep up the good work in spreading the news and maybe repeat
    this story from time to time.

    Sincerely,

    Rosemary
    viva: Tampa Bay Times

  • Rosemary

    After reading your article, I had to say you are so right
    on. I was about seven or eight when this happened to me. I could not swim and
    was wading in the Ohio River and, what you would say a step off, when I went under, everything your article said happened to me. Since there was a group of us no
    one saw what was happening until my Aunt had seen this and came to me just in
    time is the only reason I am here today.

    This came in handy years later when I was at a pool with
    some parents and we were talking, but still watching each other’s children. I
    have a habit of always looking in the water if there are children swimming…
    One little 4 year old girl, who had just learned how to swim, was doing well
    with the others. She then got out of the pool,and jumped back in again, and I saw she was stuck where she was and trying to swim and not getting anywhere, her head was above water with her mouth below looking bewildered.
    This brought back old memories of what happed to me. I told the parents that
    the child was not moving and needed help. We jumped in and helped her; she was
    ok after the initial shock.

    Sure enough, that was I, de-ja vu all over again.

    I wish more people knew of this, so many more lives would be
    saved.

    Keep up the good work in spreading the news and maybe repeat
    this story from time to time.

    Sincerely,

    Rosemary

    Viva Tampa Bay Times

  • Some random girl

    Thank you for this and thank you to everyone who is sharing it. I understand how quickly this can happen. For my own story: I’m a great swimmer but almost drowned in a backyard pool with all my cousins and grandparents looking on because I slipped and hit my pelvis so hard my legs wouldn’t work. Knocked the breath out of me and, by the time I hit the water, the only thing I seemed to be able to do was what you described: I was vertical, and looking up, but I could not (for some reason that only makes since in that kind situation) get enough power from my arms to get my mouth above water. I just remember looking at my grandma thinking “Oh my god, why are you just staring at me, I can’t breathe!” Luckily, right as it was feeling like my lungs were beyond bursting and things stopped making as much sense, (probably only 20-30 seconds,) one of my cousins jumped in and pulled me out. Everyone but him thought I was just goofing around, treading water or something. And since I had a habit of sitting on the bottom of the pool to see how long I could hold my breath, I realize there may have been another 2+ minutes under before anyone actually worried about me. With nothing in my lungs and my body already in shock, I don’t like to think what that would have meant.

  • Merrill Hall

    On TV, they stand on the bottom of the pool and are directed to act like idiots.

  • Rob

    Thanks for this article, it truly is eye opening. I hope this can save some lives.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for the article. I recently read it, thank goodness, and was recently at water park in the wave pool with my husband and young son, when I saw a young boy doing exactly what you described. The poor thing could not get his head above water to get air….but no one else noticed, even the lifegaurds, because he was so quiet and not splashing. Your article immediately came to my mind….so hit my husbands arm and yelled at him to grab the kid as I had my son in my arms. Luckily my husband reached him in time, and the boy was able to cough up the water. Sadly the lifeguards on duty never noticed, nor did his parents who weren’t even in the water. It scares me to think what would have happened to that boy had I not just read your article. Thank you again!

  • Kady Fox

    Wow! I followed a whole chain of links to get here. I’m glad that I did. This is a very informative article. Thank you for including the video. I watched it several times, and listened to the description. I read the list over and over again. I’d rather spot what I THINK is someone in trouble and be wrong, than miss one who WAS in trouble. You don’t need to be a lifeguard to need this information. It could easily happen in a backyard swimming pool.
    Thank you for posting all of it.

  • Petra

    Actually, It’s illegal to have a pool without a gate and a fence around it. Also most of them do have locks, and tricky handles that most kids can’t open. Another thing you can accidentally shoot yourself.

  • Petra

    Thank you I look forward to seeing that.

  • Hermoine

    In your belief but not necessarily anyone elses.

  • fyi

    Namaste means hello or goodbye. Nothing more. It has no relation to god. Being of Indian decent, I find it silly how American yoga and other outlets use “Namaste” to sound like a spiritual term when all it means is quite literally hello and also goodbye. No affiliation to spirituality or god whatsoever. This is why it is laughable how many westerners and “yoga” people pretend to know things of other cultures when they only sound silly and ignorant.