Drowning Does Not Look Like it Does in the Movies

by JoHarrington

Movie scenes have conditioned us to expect arms waving and yells. Parents have watched their children drowning a few feet away without realizing what was happening.

I was getting about one in five.

The Reddit thread contained a number of lifeguard rescue videos depicting real world drowning. Even now knowing what I was looking for, I was still surprised by the whistle. Most of the time, I didn't know which person was drowning until the lifeguard reached them.

I witnessed a father standing just a few feet from his drowning son. His expression only turned to one of desperate horror, when the lifeguard stopped at his own child.

I saw a group of friends all grinning at their peer as he drowned. The whistle sounded. They looked around in curiosity to see who ailed. Then back in shock as the lifeguard towed their own friend to safety. Any one of them could have reached out and touched him in the seconds before the rescue.

It was a wake up call that the reality of drowning is nothing like you think it's going to be.

Chinese Boy Laughs as he Films his Cousins Drowning

It wasn't callousness. He didn't know what he was witnessing. He thought their splashing was still part of the fun.

Drowning happens so fast. For most there isn't that prolonged period of panic, where arms wave and gulping people scream for help. Those are the scenes so beloved of Hollywood, but they don't describe drowning. Not really. That is the hallmark of Aquatic Distress instead.

Take for example the video below.  At what point do YOU think that the two girls began drowning?

Clue: By the time their highly amused cousin stops encouraging them to splash each other, they're already dead. But would you have realized the danger any sooner?

Terrifying Facts about Drowning

Did you think that drowning is a rare occurrence, which wouldn't happen at all if swimmers were supervised? Think again.

Drowning is the 3rd highest cause of accidental deaths world-wide.

~ World Health Organization

Children under 4 years old are 14 times more likely to die in a swimming pool than in a road traffic accident.

~ Orange County California Fire Authority

Every day, ten people drown in the USA. Two of them are children aged 14 or younger.

~ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

73% of American drowning deaths occur in a residential swimming pool.  88% of those involved children under five years old.

~ Pool Safely

In nine out of every ten fatal drownings involving a child in the USA, a parent or carer was watching them at the time.

~ Think Don't Sink

  • 80% of all people who drown are male. 
  • Drowning is the number one cause of accidental death in toddlers aged 1-4 years old. 
  • African Americans aged 5-14 are 5.5% more likely to drown than their Caucasian counterparts, because they have less access to swimming lessons in the USA.

~ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

For every ten children who die by drowning in the USA, another 140 are rushed to hospital for the treatment of injuries sustained in water. 36 of them require long-term hospital treatment and may never recover.

~ United States Lifeguard Association

19% of all fatal drownings occur in public pools with certified lifeguards in attendance.

~ Edgar Snyder Law Firm

Most drowned victims had been missing for less than five minutes when their bodies were discovered.

~ Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona

Wavepool Lifeguard Rescue Video

In this real life rescue at a US wave pool, the parent is right alongside his child. See if you can spot the person in distress before the lifeguard reaches them.

Instinctive Drowning Response

This is how drowning people act in reality. It's an instinctive reaction which cannot be over-ridden by pure will.
  • Silent.  When people are gasping for air, the last thing they'll do is waste any of it on screaming for help. Besides, their mouths won't be above the water long enough for speech.
  • Mouths bobbing. Drowning people rise, then fall, then rise, then fall. Their open mouths alternately under the water, then over the surface. They'll exhale, gasp air, then go under again.
  • Head back. Drowning instinctively tilts the head backwards, so that the face can be above the water for as long as possible.
  • Hair over face. No-one drowning is bothered about seeing, nor their hair-do. Their locks will become plastered over their eyes and they won't move to shift it.
  • Eyes wide and glassy.  Lifeguards have queued up to say that this is the biggest give-away of all. Those in Instinctive Drowning Response are unable to yell, wave or attract attention to save themselves in any other way. But they can show panic in their eyes. If someone's eyes widen and they look scared, they're drowning. If that gaze has gone glassy, then you're closing in fast on too late.  Some will close their eyes, which means you don't get even this tiny tell.
  • Upright. Forget the splayed limbs, floating on the surface stance that you see in films. That's directors stopping their actors from really drowning. Real drowners are vertical in the water, like they're standing straight but with no purchase on the depths below. There will be no evidence of them treading water. No supporting kick to keep them heading upwards.
  • Climbing an invisible ladder. Another huge giveaway is the bizarre spectacle of an individual apparently attempting to scale water and air, like they're climbing an invisible ladder. Their arms will press laterally on the water surface in order to do this.
  • Submersion. It takes just 20-60 seconds from the onset of the Instinctive Drowning Response for a person to submerge and never come back up again.

Instinctive Drowning Response Captured on Film

This trained lifeguard was too far away to help, but he did record the drowning victim AND the rescue so that others might know what to see.

How to Save Somebody Who is Drowning

So now you know how to recognize drowning, but what should you do next? Those who dive in to rescue the individual could be killing themselves.

Somebody who is drowning will instinctively grab anyone and anything in an attempt to lever themselves out of the water. With a strength born of panic, that means that even a child could push a full grown adult underwater and hold them there.

Be very careful before placing yourself within reach of a drowning person. Never, ever approach them from the front.

Here are the steps to saving a drowning person, in order of preference:

  1. Talk.  It is ALWAYS alright to ask someone if they are ok. If they don't answer, act.
  2. Throw. Find something that floats and chuck it to them. Pools should have a certified piece of kit for this - a ring usually. But if that's not available, then anything buoyant is better than nothing. Throw it to them, so they can grab onto it.
  3. Reach.  Brace yourself on the ground, preferably far from the edge of the water (so you're not pulled in yourself), then extend a pole or branch towards them. Once they grab onto it, pull them towards you.
  4. Wade.  Enter the water, but keep your distance, in order to get close enough to either throw a floatation aid or reach them with a pole.
  5. Row.  Take a boat out to reach them - a canoe or kayak perhaps.  If it's a motorboat, cut the engine before you get close, as the instinct of a drowning person may be to grab the stern, where the motor is.  Keep your distance and use this stable platform to throw or reach. This is bordering upon very risky (it's long past risky), as the drowner won't be able to stop themselves attempting to board the boat, thus capsizing it.
  6. Swim.  This might be any rescuer's first instinct, but it should only be attempted by a trained lifeguard. The drowning person WILL grab you and that may well put you into difficulties.  Ideally you will swim close enough to deliver a floatation device from behind.  Lifeguards will always carry something with them to hand to the drowning person. I heard one anecdote where the rescuer - an off-duty lifeguard - took a small twig.  It wasn't going to help keep the individual float, but by grabbing that instinctively, it stopped the person latching onto his rescuer instead.
  7. Tow.  Attaching the drowning person in some way - either by getting them to grab a floatation device or, worst case scenario, grasping a handful of hair and going - then swimming back to the shore or edge of the pool.
  8. Carry.  This is absolutely the most risky venture of all, and could well be suicide. This involves taking the drowner's full body weight and carrying them back to safety and/or lifting them out of the water.  You saw this in the video above.

What Does a Drowning Look Like & How do we Help?

Pool Fencing Dramatically Decreases Accidental Drowning

Statistics show that fewer people drown in swimming pools that are fenced off. The reason? Kids aren't wandering into them unsupervised.

Water Safety Books for Small Kids

The most at risk group for drowning are the under fives (closely followed by adolescents). Give your pre-schoolers a heads up on how to avoid danger in water.

Residential Pool Safety Products

When 78% of all US drownings occur in someone's back yard, then you need to stop your people becoming a statistic. Outfit your pool properly.

More Emergency Preparedness Articles

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It's a morbid subject, which no-one really wants to discuss much. But it's a question which will gain vital importance after your death.
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Updated: 08/15/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 09/10/2014

This all scared the life out of me, because even with all of the information, I'm not 100% convinced I could recognize drowning still.

Ember on 09/10/2014

I was just sharing what I learned about this with my mom the other day, and it reminded me to send it to my SIL, especially because we're about to have a pool party tomorrow and Friday.

JoHarrington on 08/22/2014

Telesto - That prop to give a drowning person to grab isn't something that would ever have occurred to me. Until I read the Reddit thread, then researched further to write this, I would have done it all wrong.

For a start, I wouldn't have recognized that someone was drowning, and if I did, I would have jumped straight in there, approached from the front and attempted to save them that way. Which means that I would have run a high risk of drowning too.

JoHarrington on 08/22/2014

Liz - That was my aim. It shook me to the core when I read that Reddit thread and realised that I would miss someone drowning. While watching those videos - now in full knowledge of what drowning really looks like - most of the time I couldn't identify the person in distress until the lifeguard reached then.

I'm grateful to the Redditor who raised my awareness, and this is my way of passing that information on.

Telesto on 08/19/2014

Good advice to give the person something to grab onto. I can't watch the videos where I am at the moment, and am rather pleased I can't.

LizMac67 on 08/16/2014

What an important page. There are so many wrong ideas that people have about drowning. By this page you will almost certainly have saved some lives.

JoHarrington on 08/15/2014

Me too now. Which is what scared me enough to write this article!

sandyspider on 08/14/2014

Good information on recognizing drowning. As for the Chinese boy, I have read many stories like that.

JoHarrington on 08/13/2014

Ouch! Yes, that was choking. It looks like it was far enough down that swallowing worked better for you. Most people choking go through the coughing part first. She needed to smack you on the back.

Ember on 08/13/2014

Oh well I will say I'm not certain how typical my experience was, it most certainly wasn't a case of something getting lodged in my throat and blocking anything...and I'm still not sure exactly what happened. Had a rep in who wanted me to try their new cough drops/bring them into my store. So she had me try one, and she asked me to bite into it, because the center had honey and pine pollen. So she went on talking to me about other products. When I swallowed, apparently one piece was like a shard of glass and stabbed me and got stuck....somewhere in my throat. I still haven't figured out what happened, but if I had to guess it was stuck right between my esophagus and my wind pipe. I didn't cough at all. I felt it stab me and it caused more of a swallowing response, but I couldn't stop and I couldn't breathe between them either. Maybe it just belongs in the category of random, really unlucky, freak accident. I was perfectly calm too, apart from when I was like "ow" from being stabbed by candy shards. It was literally the size of a grain of rice or smaller. I reached a moment where I realized oh I'm chocking. And I wanted to cough but I wasn't breathing and couldn't so I couldn't cough. I have to tell you it is the weirdest feeling to need to cough and physically not be able to, I did almost throw up. I had a bottle of water on my desk right in front of me and I eventually attempted to drink some. That's when the rep noticed me, but at that point it was entirely obvious something was wrong, my eyes were watering badly, and I probably had a look on my face. After I drank some water I finally did start coughing, which eventually did dislodge the tiny evil piece of candy, and also made me throw up XD Today my throat feels like I swallowed glass.

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