It is a far more common occurrence than you might think, yet most of us have no idea what drowning really looks like. Clue number one: forget everything you've seen in the films. There's no yelling or splashing; it's undramatic and easy to ignore.
Drowning is the third leading cause of accidental death worldwide, with children particularly susceptible, according to the World Health Organization. For infants up to the age of three, it's the number one cause in countries like Australia where exposure to water is more regular.
Alarmingly, nearly half of these drownings will take place within 25 yards of the caregiver, and in 10 per cent of cases, the adult will watch it happen without realising.
Mario Vittone, a Florida-based expert in sea rescue, develops training courses on the subject of drowning. Below he explains how to spot the signs, and possibly even save a life.
A cautionary tale
The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and dashed 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.
How did this captain know – from 50 feet away – what the father couldn’t recognise from just ten?
Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognise 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 almost all of us) then you should make sure that you know what to look for whenever people enter the water.
Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” upon rescue, 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 Instinctive Drowning Response
– so-named by Francesco A Pia, PhD, 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 shouting 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 10 per cent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.
Drowning does not look like drowning – Dr Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine, described the instinctive drowning response thus:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This doesn’t mean that a person that is shouting 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.
So if, say, someone falls overboard a boat and everything looks OK – don’t be too sure. As we have learned, sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning.
They may just appear to be treading water and glancing 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 go quiet, get to them and find out why.
Mario Vittone is a leading expert on immersion hypothermia, drowning, sea survival, and safety at sea.