Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning

By: Oscar Fann WTVY-TV meteorologist
By: Oscar Fann WTVY-TV meteorologist

I’m taking a little liberty here and posting a very enlightening article about an activity most of us enjoy when the weather is hot.

Swimming – that is, at least jumping into a pool, stream or heading to the beach.

It can be a highly enjoyable activity, but obviously there’s an danger – drowning.

As a LONG AGO lifeguard and water safety instructor, I found the following article and medical information profoundly enlightening.

Please - FOR THE SAFETY OF YOURSELF, FAMILY AND FRIENDS - I urge you to read and remember it.

I want all your water and swimming activities to be cherished as happy events.


The last time I checked -


Please realize non swimmers are not the only victims – sometimes ‘good’ swimmers either overestimate their abilities or get themselves in unforeseen trouble. Sometimes the unforeseen trouble is coming to the rescue of a non swimmer who is in trouble.

The process of drowning is not as obvious as you may think……

Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

by Mario Vittone (May 3, 2010)

in Boating Safety,Water Safety

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 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
•Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder.

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.

(The above article is available in several languages and an audio version at

http://mariovittone.com/2010/05/154/ )

About Mario Vittone…

Mario Vittone has nineteen years of combined military service in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. His writing on maritime safety has appeared in Yachting, Salt Water Sportsman, On Scene, Lifelines, and at theNavalSafetyCenter’s Online Resource Site. He has also written for Reader’s Digest magazine. He has lectured extensively on topics ranging from leadership and innovation to sea survival and immersion hypothermia.

Mario worked as an Aviation Survival Technician and helicopter rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard inNew Orleans,LAand Elizabeth City, NC, flying on hundreds of search and rescue cases. He is currently working as a Marine Safety Specialist with Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads inNorfolk,VA.

The following is from a doctor about the process of drowning…

Dr. Heidi Dalton, chief of critical-care medicine at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, explains what can happen when a child is drowning:


When infants or small children fall into the water, they have a strong reflex action to not get water into their lungs. They often will flail their arms and fight to resurface. They will flail to the point of exhaustion, to where they are forced to take a breath because their body senses they don’t have enough oxygen. They experience a sensation of suffocating.


As they start to sink, the drive to breathe kicks in, probably the biggest response the body has. The children may gulp water. They will pass out. Losing consciousness comes from not having enough oxygen circulating in the blood. Young children tend to store less oxygen in the bloodstream, so they may pass out more quickly than those children who are older.


As the brain and blood continue to be deprived of circulating oxygen, cardiac arrest can occur. Some children will have a respiratory injury from inhaling water, but generally, those who have drowned don’t have lungs filled with water.


When someone is pulled from the water, you have to reinstate the body’s response to need to breathe. When the brain has been deprived of oxygen, it has lost the sensation to know the body has to keep breathing. In CPR, the brain says, “Hello, there is blood coming to me,”Daltonsays. The amount of time underwater does not determine whether a child will live or die. The fate of the child depends on multiple factors, including how long he or she was without oxygen and whether the heart had stopped.

A final Oscar note -

I do not intend this safety information to alarm you. Instead, this article should make you more alert in your swimming and water activities and more confident about recognizing the possible threats to your water safety as well as to others.

Try to always swim in areas watched by qualified lifeguards and try to swim with a friend. DO NOT HESITATE to inform a lifeguard when someone appears to be in distress. If needed, INFORM the lifeguard to your and your children’s limitations.


See you at the pool!

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