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

  2. I am glad I came across to this article, I feel a responsibility now to be more aware of my surroundings while swimming, hopefully more people can read and learn. Thanks for this! it is a great article and you never know, you might save someone by sharing this.

  3. I almost drowned in the swimming pool once when I was about 5 years old, was playing around with my cousin and she thought I was joking, but actually started to drown. Thought it would be like the movies, could splash and alert attention to myself..but no. It’s almost like a out of body experience, once you start drowning. Remember sense of panic that I couldn’t get the attention of the adult who was looking away from the pool, and feeling like a unseen force kept pulling me back underneath the water. I don’t really remember much other than managing to calm down and kick myself in a burst towards the edge of the pool, and kicking cousin in the process.

  4. You’re so right. This thing happened to me a couple of years ago. Horrible feeling when everyone is watching, having no idea that you may pass away or just being lazy as craze.

  5. Surprisingly when I was about 6 years old, I nearly drowned in a pond full of adults. I was tall enough for half my arms to reach out of the water and splash the top but everyone thought I was playing until my grandma realized my head wasn’t breaking surface. At that point I remember being pulled put of the water. 19 years ago and I still remember it.

  6. Suzannah Kolbeck

    I post this every year on Memorial Day weekend. So incredibly important. Thank you.

  7. Wonderful, thank you, I shared it as I don’t think people are aware that drowning is not like it’s portrayed on T.V. for children it’s silent. As a teen, at the beach, a small child drown in shallow water inches from the shore line, with many people around. She didn’t make a sound. Her mother was just a few feet away.
    When I was an adult, a young boy stepped off the end of a boat launch, just feet from where I was standing, not realizing it was over his head, never making a sound as he went under. His mother was in a car in the parking lot. He didn’t splash, flail his arms or call out/scream. When I turned all I could see were his wide panic filled eyes under the water. I stepped over, reached him and pulled him up to me. He lived. Years later he looked me up and thanked me for saving his life.
    I know accidents can happen even if your diligently watching your child, but in both these case the mothers were distracted by another. When you have a child and water around, your eyes need to be glued to your child, no exceptions, no excuses.

  8. Excellent insight on drowning….not what the layman is looking out for.

  9. I’m, unfortunately, a bottom swimmer. I’ve had two lifeguards jump in to save me. But this gave me confidence that, if I was ever really in trouble, they would be there to save me. I did witness a resuscitation at that pool once… Someone dove into the water with chewing gum in her mouth. When she came up for a breath, she lodged the gum in her throat and began to choke. If you are swimming, do NOT have food in your mouth.

  10. A child can die in a bathtub or a bucket of water. Don’t assume it has to be a large body of water like a pool…

  11. Pingback:What Drowning Really Looks Like - Faithful Provisions

  12. I experienced drowning once at a wave pool even though I knew how to swim. My brother was right beside me though and pulled me up. It was very much how this article described.

  13. When I was four and my brother was two he fell in the deep end of the pool. He just kept trying to dog paddle but couldn’t get his head or even his hands above surface. If I didn’t start hysterically screaming you wouldn’t even know he was under the water.

  14. I was a lifeguard at my public pool when I was younger and was never taught this. It’s kinda scary.

  15. I had to rescue my brother from drowning as a child. Fell in and just floated face down until I got to him. Made no noise, but I was watching.

  16. Monika Karbowska

    I was drowning once. Just the way it is described. It was not awful, just sooooo disabling but peaceful and weirdly not unpleasant; all my friends just feets away splashing in water. Thankfully when I submerged one pulled me out on a piece of foam desk by my hair. She had a gut feeling smth was wrong and I was struggling cos I wasn’t able to answer her, she pushed me just a meter forward when I was able to stand in water. We were 12-14 at the time. Great article!

  17. Here a little late via slate via vox, but I just had to thank you; this is one of the most interesting and valuable articles I’ve read in a long time.

  18. Thanks ,(Again,I’ve posted this every year since it came out).

  19. I’ve shared this every April or May for the past 3 years. I’m grateful that you’ve written it.

    When I was 18 and ‘invincible’, I came close to drowning once (in water shallower than I am tall–we got too close to a ‘small’ dam’s floodgate and I couldn’t get my feet under me) and looking back, the IDR is exactly how I reacted. Thank god one of the men swimming with my friend and me recognised I was in trouble.

    I’ve gotten a lot smarter about where I swim.

  20. I share this every single year and am so glad that you took the time to write this six years ago. I know from experience how scary it is. My experience mirrored what you outlined here, but I’d always attributed it to my age and the fact that I didn’t know how to swim at the time. Until reading this years ago, I still thought drownings were more like what TV portrays. You have done a valuable service, and likely saved lives, by writing this.