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. Thank you for writing this article. I experienced drowning as a child and it wasn’t anything like what you see on TV. It was a quiet, splash-less event where I sat on the bottom of the pool from not knowing how to swim. When it comes to water you can never be too careful. Educate yourself and others on safety and what to watch out for.

  2. I’ve posted this every year at the beginning of summer on my FB page since it’s been published. Thanks for the life-saving information.

  3. May everyone involved be truly blessed. It’s wonderful seeing the Internet being used positively! Keep up the great work.

  4. Very informative, but it raises the question:

    How come NO ONE told us (the public) this until now? Like why hasn’t this been posted near every pool, lake, pond, and beach for the past 50-odd years?

    Hell it’s only out of the generosity of the author, some random blogger that was nice enough to share, that we even know about this.

  5. This is an excellent article. It makes a lot of sense too. If someone actually is at the end of his rope, he’s going to use as little energy as possible trying to keep his nose and mouth above water.

  6. We had a fenced pool that was ALWAYS locked. The one time it was unlocked was when my husband was putting in chemicals and left the gate open to go get more. Just that quick, our two year old went inside and got into the deep end. Luckily our daughter was there and started screaming. My husband ran out and got him out of the pool. It can happen just that fast!

  7. Pingback:Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning: One reader’s story all the way from Oslo | Jessica Vittone

  8. Thank you, very good information!

  9. When I was a kid I almost drowned twice and both times it was someone else (not my parents) who noticed and saved me…it’s so true..you just go silent and everything starts going black and you can’t really move.. SO scary! This article is VERY informative and I will for sure pass it along 🙂

  10. I almost drowned at Ocean City once. I really thought I was a goner, and I can say this article is pretty spot on when I look back on it. Good article.

    P.S. Always swim with a lifeguard.

  11. IMPORTANT. Everyone should read this. Might save a few lives. I remember saving a friend from drowning as a kid. We were at the wave pool and she was trying to swim out to me where I was in the deep end when the waves started. She wasn’t a strong swimmer, so she couldn’t handle the waves. The lifeguards didn’t notice or do anything. But I saw that she was coming up for air less and less, so I swam over with a big floaty and pulled her on to it and swam her to the shallow end. A nearby stranger even tried hailing the lifeguard, who just thought he was waving to say hi.

    She wasn’t saying anything, or waving. Actually I knew something was wrong BECAUSE she wasn’t saying anything or waving. I got to her just in the nick of time, when she stopped managing to surface any part of her head. The pool was crowded, there were people all around. And none of them noticed that she wasn’t okay. I not sure if I’m remembering right, but I think her dad was even trying to help her, but she was accidentally pushing HIM down too, putting them both in duress. And yet no one else other than myself and the man noticed anything was wrong. Not even the lifeguard he was trying to flag.

  12. Great information. A student at my junior high drowned a few years ago with a pool full of friends and swimming coaches as life guards. Now I’ll know what to look for! Thank you.

  13. Thanks; I have even seen the vidio that you refer to

  14. I am an adult who experienced a near death drowning rafting accident a year ago. The above article could be describing me. As I was thrown from the raft, two messages filled my mind- Don’t panic and Keep breathing air. Everyone reread this excellent article.

  15. Because I have two toddlers that love the water I’m kinda terrified but really, really happy that I know all of this now!

  16. Thank you for writing this article. It hit me pretty hard that actually, I have no idea how to tell if someone is drowning.

  17. Thank you for this article. When I explain that this happened to both of my small children this summer at the pool they sometimes say “Oh they just had a scare.”
    No. They were drowning.
    With their mother only feet away.
    Passing this article on to friends and family. Thanks!!

  18. Very Good and most useful article…Thank you

  19. wow! This extremely important article should be printed by every publication, blog, web-site, etc.;, especially those targeting parents.
    This is invaluable! And pediatricians would do well to share this with each of the families they work with! Thank you, thank you for taking the time to write this, and in such careful detail! May it save lives.

  20. This is something that I never knew before, but shall ever forget. Thank you.