What A Drowning Person Actually Looks Like

By Aaron Granger on Wednesday, March 12, 2014
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“I mean, you gotta be somebody, ain’t ya, or you might as well jump in the sea and drown.” —Quadrophenia (1979)

In A Nutshell

Most people think that a swimmer is drowning when they start flailing their arms and yelling for help. They’d be dead wrong. Once a person starts to drown, they can’t yell or move their arms voluntarily, and will probably not make much of a scene. They definitely won’t be waving one arm in the air like most depictions in pop culture and the media.

The Whole Bushel

People are exposed to drowning victims all the time on TV or in movies. In almost every case, the victim begins to splash and shout for help. This conditions us to look for the wrong warning signs. This is even a problem for rescue professionals like the Coast Guard, whose official journal tells the story of a rescue pilot thinking a couple of capsized boaters were completely fine when they were actually drowning.

This isn’t to say that those flailing motions and cries for help are meaningless. They are a sign of aquatic distress and a good indicator that trouble is on the way. Although the splashing can look like playing, it is a sign that the swimmer needs assistance. However, if a person is displaying those behaviors, they are not actually drowning at that point and there should be ample time to rescue them.

A person who is drowning exhibits a set of involuntary behaviors known as the Instinctive Drowning Response. This set of behaviors was described by Dr. Francesco A. Pia and Aviation Survival Technician First Class Mario Vittone in the US Coast Guard’s official journal, On Scene.

A drowning victim’s mouth and nose will be going in and out of the water. This puts them in the unenviable position of getting less and less oxygen, because they need to time their breaths for when their heads are above water. The need for air soon takes priority over calling for help, so all they will be able to do is gasp for air in the brief moments when their heads are out of the water. They won’t be waving for help either. Their arms will be too busy trying to lift their mouths out of the water. Most drowning victims will unconsciously press down on the water as though they were trying to climb an invisible ladder. The person will remain upright with their head tilted back as they push down on the water. To make things worse, it is likely that they won’t be using their legs to kick toward the surface.

The net result is a victim that looks, to an untrained observer, like they are simply playing in the water. Once the swimmer is exhibiting those behaviors they can be very close to drowning. The US Coast Guard warns the public that once the Instinctive Drowning Response has started, the victim has from twenty seconds to a minute before they go under. At that point they are very likely to drown unless help can reach them quickly.

Knowing that drowning victims don’t look like they’re in trouble could potentially save quite a few lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that over the period of 2005–2009 there were about 10 drowning deaths per day in the US. That number doesn’t include drownings related to boating which would put the number up to nearly 11 deaths per day. Aviation Survival Technician First Class Mario Vittone offers a simple test to see if somebody is actually drowning: Just ask them if they are okay. If they make any response at all, then they’re probably fine. But if they don’t respond or just stare blankly, there’s a good chance they’re drowning.

Show Me The Proof

On Scene: ‘It Doesn’t Look Like They’re Drowning’
Sydney Morning Herald: Royal Life Saving warns parents drowning is deceptively silent
CDC: Unintentional Drowning
Slate: Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning