Not waving, drowning

Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television and cinema) prepares us to look for, is rarely seen in real life. This blog explains why those nearby often miss vital signs that a child or adult is drowning within reach. Read on for more information on Royal Life Saving NSW’s new innovative early childhood program to tackle unacceptably high child drownings. 

‘In ten percent of child drownings, an adult will actually watch the child drown and have no idea what is happening.’

Former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, Mario Vittone relates the following story about a near-drowning:

A new crew member jumped from his boat, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim and headed straight for the boat’s owners, who were swimming between their anchored craft and the beach. A husband and wife had been splashing each other and she had screamed but now they were just standing, neck-deep on the sandbar. ‘We’re fine, what is he doing?’ she asked, a little annoyed. ‘We’re fine!’ the husband yelled, waving him off, but the former lifeguard kept swimming hard. ‘Move!’ he barked as he sprinted between the stunned parents. Directly behind them, not ten feet away, their nine-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of her rescuer, the girl burst into tears, ‘Daddy!’

How did this man know, from 15 metres away, what the parents couldn’t recognise from just three metres? Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The crew member was trained by experts and years of experience to recognise drowning. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If you spend time on or near water (hint: that’s most of us) then you should make sure that you, your team or family know what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, ‘Daddy,’ the child hadn’t made a sound.

As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, Mario Vittone wasn’t surprised at all by this story. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event, he says. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for, are rarely seen in real life.

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 resemble what most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind.

The instinctive drowning response

Drowning does not look like drowning according to Vittone. The instinctive drowning response has particular signs to watch for including:

  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)

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, grab onto lifelines, respond to thrown lifesaving rings, etc.

Look for these other signs of drowning among people 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
  • Ladder climb, rarely out of the water.

When children go quiet find out why

So if you see a child or adult overboard yet everything looks okay—don’t be too sure. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. They may just look like they are treading water and looking up. 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.

For families and educators around water: children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.

Further resources


Early Childhood Australia

Early Childhood Australia (ECA) has been a voice for young children since 1938. We are the peak early childhood advocacy organisation, acting in the interests of young children, their families and those in the early childhood field. ECA advocates to ensure quality, social justice and equity in all issues relating to the education and care of children aged birth to eight years.

2 thoughts on “Not waving, drowning”

    Gwynne Evans says:

    Thankyou, a timely reminder for us all.

    Lesa Cutforth says:

    I can totally relate to this as this happened to us about 20 years ago with our third son who was nearing three years old at the time. The the silence was almost deafening! I totally didn’t expect it. Thankfully our son was rescued in time and he is now married.

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