“Drowning is not the violent, splashing call for help that most people that most people expect,” says former Coast Guard rescue swimmer Mario Vittone in a story published by Slate. “There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind.” In fact, Mr. Vittone’s report explains, children sometimes drown right before their parents’ eyes simply because drowning in real life doesn’t resemble the frantic, flailing act people have come to expect from watching dramatized versions on television and in movies.
Drowning is actually very undramatic, “deceptively quiet,” and subtle, and it’s usually only obvious to those who have had special training or years of experience, Mr. Vittone explains. When someone tries to avoid drowning, their actions, which Dr. Francesco A. Pia dubbed the “Instinctive Drowning Response,” involve some very unremarkable circumstances that people should recognize whenever they are in the vicinity of swimmers, especially children.
People who are drowning are physiologically unable to call for help because speech is secondary to breathing. Trying to breathe overrides any efforts to vocalize, except in rare cases.
The mouth of a drowning person alternately sinks below and emerges from the water’s surface, but not long enough for the person to properly exhale and inhale, or call for help. When their mouth is above the surface, the drowning person starts to inhale and exhale rapidly and continues to do so as they sink below the surface.
Instinctively, drowning people use their arms to press down on the water for leverage and do not raise their arms in the air to signal for help.
Essentially, the drowning person loses his or her abilities to do anything voluntarily, including controlled arms movements, moving within range of a rescuer or other support, or reaching for a rescue rope or tube.
The drowning person’s body remains upright in the water throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response phase, with no signs of kicking to stay afloat. The struggle of a drowning person lasts 20-60 seconds before final submersion.
People who thrash around in the water and call for help may very well be in trouble, but they are in “aquatic distress,” as opposed to drowning, Mr. Vittone explains. Those people are able to reach for lifelines and generally assist in their rescue.
According to Mr. Vittone, other signs to watch for are: the head low in the water with the mouth at water level; head slung back with mouth open; glassy, empty, or closed eyes; inability to focus; hair covering forehead or eyes; no kicking; hyperventilating or gasping; attempting to roll over onto the back; and appearing to climb an invisible ladder or swim in a particular direction, but without making headway.
According to Mr. Vittone, one of the best ways to gauge whether someone is in trouble in the water is to ask if he or she is all right. “If they can answer, at all, they probably are,” Mr. Vittone says. “If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds” to save their life.