Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

by xmBill


This is a topic that in my research just doesn’t seem to get enough factual coverage. As the title  from numerous blogs reads “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning” : it is a statement that is so true as I discovered in my own life several years ago. At the time I hadn’t heard about Instinctive Drowning Response or much less had a clue as to what it was actually about. However, one day at the beach while with a person I was very close to, I encountered it.

I had just gotten out of the water and was sitting on the beach just out of the incoming tide watching this person swimming. They were in the shore break which was varying between 3-5 ft. in depth. As I was just casually watching, I noticed their heading bobbing up and down in the water with their head sometimes tilting back and their hair in their eyes. They seemed to be in a way, peacefully enjoying the water.

As I kept watching, I then noticed their arms extended out but nothing frantic in the movement. They seemed to be almost drunk like (for lack of a better way to explain it) however, I knew this was not the case. After a few seconds of watching this trying to make sense out of what I was seeing, I decided to get back in the water and get a closer view. As I approached, I then became troubled at what I was seeing. They were now appearing to me to not be in control any more as the head was tending to stay face down more with the mouth above and below the water and no longer tilting back anymore. The waves appeared to be causing more of the movement instead of what I thought was the persons intentional movement. As a wave passed, I was in about 3-4 ft. of water and I just grabbed them probably by the arms and I remember saying “What are you doing?” and walked them back to the beach.

As the person and I lay on the beach, I was still trying to figure out what just took place. They were breathing heavily as if out of breath, but not coughing or spitting up water or anything like I would have expected of someone having almost drowned. I, for some reason remember asking them again “What were you doing out there?” The only response I got a couple of minutes later was “You saved me.”

I never took that too serious because I was really confused about the situation as it just didn’t seem real. I didn’t feel as if I had saved this person from drowning as I didn’t really think this person was drowning. Just no other explanation comes to my mind as I think back. We never did really discuss it throughout the years, but just in conversation, almost in a kidding fashion I thought, the person would say that I saved them on 2-3 occasions.

I don’t believe that throughout the following years that I ever told anyone about this until one day maybe two or three years ago I was checking out some things on the Internet and I ran across this article by Mario Vittone. I could not believe what I was reading. It had been several years since that had happened, but as I read what a real drowning was like, I felt I had seen it first hand in the above account. If this was so, then I decided that I needed to tell my experience and get the word out that DROWNING DOESN’T LOOK LIKE DROWNING.

As a surfer I have been close to drowning myself, but as I discovered in my research in this matter, was that I only experienced aquatic distress. I was experiencing this as I had wiped out on a ten ft. wave. I got pounded to the bottom and rolled around in the turbulence of the wave for several seconds before  I was able to tell which way was up and start swimming back to the surface. However, as I came up for air, I was gasping and another wave came right down on top of me preventing me from taking in much air. This time my board had got caught in the wave ripping the leash from my leg, taking away my only means of flotation. As I came up the second time I had maybe a couple of seconds and a third wave crashed on top of me again sending me below into the turbulence.

By now I was totally exhausted and was at the point where I wanted to yell for help but barely had the energy to, much less the breath to. I was getting farther away from the breakers so I was getting a little more time in between waves, but I still felt I needed help. At one point I could see the lifeguard on the beach talking to a couple of girls not looking in my direction. I decided then that I was on my own. The waves were still coming one after another, but now they were actually helping push me closer to the beach. I kept struggling as the waves were still going over my head, but I was no longer thrust under them as before. I was finally able to make it back to the beach totally exhausted as I lay in the sand and no one appeared to notice what I had been through. I had experienced aquatic distress, but fortunately I hadn’t drowned. I learned a great lesson that day. YOU are responsible for your own life as others may not care or are too busy to notice what you are going through.

I was fully aware of my situation and able to help myself, but those that are real victims of the silence of drowning are unable to help themselves. And others even close by, unless trained for what to look for, may not realize the person next to them is drowning. It’s not like Hollywood, people. Get yourself educated about this as you may be the one next to someone drowning. Only God was able to help me to see something was not right as I was almost embarrassed to get in the water thinking the person was not in any real trouble.

Check out this video of a rescue where others around were not aware the kid was even drowning.

Please check out the real signs of a drowning victim below and forget the Hollywood scenes as that person beside you may be in real danger, but not appear that way to the casual observer.

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 un-dramatic 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 drowning’s, 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.

If anybody has any comments or videos about Instinctive Drowning Response, please leave them in the comments section below. I would really like to see some videos as I can not find many out there describing this. Your help would greatly be appreciated and it might someday save someone’s life. Let’s get the word out.

Thank You

Thanks to Mario Vittone for bringing this to my attention.

His website can be found here:



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