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.


  1. Pingback:Public Service Announcement on Drowning - Parenting -Children, problems, school, daycare, behavior, age, teenagers, infants - City-Data Forum

  2. Thanks for that

  3. Good info…wow!

  4. My daughter almost drowned right behind me a few years ago. I turned around and she just looked like she was bouncing in and out of the water. I calmly walked over to her, grabbed her, and that is when she started to freak out. She was drowning and neither I nor the lifeguard knew it. Scary thing. My baby could have died 3 feet from me.

  5. Thanks for this article. I will be sharing with this my friends as there is valuable information about drowning that I didn't even know.

  6. Absolutely fascinating – and probably life-saving. Thank you for this! I won't forget it.

  7. Thanks for all of the responses.

  8. Oh, my goodness. My precious neighbors just got a pool this week. I will share this with them and my family. Thank you for sharing this with us common folks.

  9. thanks for the info.. some would never had know …

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  12. Terrific article – and may also serve as a metaphor for life. With the young and the vulnerable it is necessary to watch them for signs of distress rather than expecting them to catch our attention. Thanks for a very helpful article.

  13. Marcosandalismom

    WOW an eye opener. Someone posted this on the FB wall and now I am going to do the same. Thanks for the info Mario, it will save lives.

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  15. Something everyone should know. Thank you.

  16. At a resort hotel I was at the pool with my young family, nearby a young child 3 years old playing on the stairs to the pool. She fell over backwards and was pinned in the corner, face just under water.

    Parents were sitting 30 feet away unaware their daughter was struggling to get free. I stood up walked over reached down and pulled the child up.
    Immediately the child screamed bloody murder and the mother was all over me instantly screaming at the top of her lungs to leave her daughter alone….

    About 10 minutes later she did come over, apologized and bought me lunch. Someone had told them that I most likely had saved their daughter's life.

    Kids drown in about 30 seconds….. Die in 4 minutes…

  17. Educate me more

    Thanks you so very much for posting this. I just experienced a situation where I jumped into very salty water with my 8 year old and the temperature and the saltiness of the water completely shocked me and I began to panic. Luckily everything worked out but all I could think of was my 8 year old who was happily swimming about but I would not be able to help him becasue I was panicked. It's time I learned more about water safety.

  18. Pingback:Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning » Oh, Blee..

  19. I personally experienced near drowning at 13. My best friend and I, along with some relatives, were on a river sandbar when the tide came. Not a swimmer, I went under twice right in front of an adult cousin. He didn't realize I was in trouble, but thank goodness his wife did. She saved me. For that reason I made sure my kids knew how to swim. Now I keep a close eye on my grandkids!