You are here

Do You Know What Drowning Really Looks Like?

Many thanks to Mario Vittone for graciously giving us permission to share this valuable article with our readership. Please read through Mario's article below and consider sharing this information with family and friends.

Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

By Mario Vittone

The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and sprinted 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, "Daddy!"

How did this captain know - from fifty feet away - what the father couldn't recognize from just ten? Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize 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 all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew know what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, "Daddy," 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 waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for, is 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 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 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 ten percent of those drownings, 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 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

So if a crew member falls overboard and everything looks OK, 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 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 get quiet, you get to them and find out why.

Here is a video of the Instinctive Drowning Response:

About the Author

A native of Bowie, Maryland, Mario Vittone joined the Navy in 1983. After almost two years of avionics training, he was assigned as ship’s company on the USS Coral Sea, a WWII era aircraft carrier, where he spent five years as an airborne RADAR technician. Joining the Coast Guard in 1991 he was assigned as permanent party at Training Center Cape May before transferring to the Cutter Point Franklin as a helmsman and small boat coxswain. He graduated from Helicopter Rescue Swimmer School in 1994 and began his career as a rescue swimmer with two tours at Air Station Elizabeth City, one at Air Station New Orleans, then finally as an instructor and course developer at the Aviation Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City, NC

Mario is a leading expert on immersion hypothermia, drowning, sea survival, and safety at sea. His writing has appeared in Yachting Magazine, SaltWater Sportsman, MotorBoating Magazine, Lifelines, On-Scene, and Reader’s Digest. He has lectured extensively to business leaders, educators, and the military on team motivation, performance, innovation, mission focus, and generational diversity. In 2007, he was named as the Coast Guard Active Duty Enlisted Person of the Year and was named as the 2009 recipient of the Alex Haley Award for Journalism.

You can visit Mario's website by clicking here:


Join more than 80,000 readers worldwide who receive Dr. Ben Kim's free newsletter

Receive simple suggestions to measurably improve your health and mobility, plus alerts on specials and giveaways at our catalogue

Please Rate This

Your rating: None Average: 4.8 (213 votes)
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.


Both of my daughters fell in a swimming pool as young children. Fortunately, we saw them and rescued them. This article is correct. There was NO thrashing, NO noise, NO waving of hands. They were in a vertical position with the water at forehead level, eyes wide open in surprise. They didn't move a muscle or make a sound.

Not even sure why i read your article but so glad i did. This brought back a flood of memories when i was a youngster at the beach. I believe i was in aquatic distress, but not far off from drowning. If it hadn't been for a perceptive lifeguard i may not be here today.
As always, grateful for your many and informative/enlightening articles Dr Kim, Namaste.

For someone like me who does not know how to swim and has experienced drowning once as a kid, reading this article reminded me of that time. I could not scream or shout for help, I was too shocked to even react. And yes, I couldnt stay afloat for more than a minute. My uncle who was with me didnt even realize it until I just disappeared from his view. Luckily for me, he knew I was on float so he was concerned when he could not see him afloat. Very informative article for parents.

Dear Parents,
Please take your children swimming starting when they are young and teach them to swim, put them in swimming lessons if you can. I almost drowned in an outdoor public swimming pool when I was a youth and I remember it well. I could barely get my eyes and nose above water. I couldn't scream and I couldn't wave my arms. I just fixated my eyes in the direction of the lifeguard and prayed he would see me. It seemed to last forever. It is extremely frightening.

I made sure my kids all learned to swim and that they grew up without a fear of water. A respect for water, yes, but not a debilitating fear like I did. I also made sure I learned how to swim when I was older. I still remember the near-drowning like it was burned into my mind, and it has been over 30 years ago. Sometimes I still panic when I realize I am in water over my head, but then I remember I can dog paddle, I can tread water, I can float on my back, and I can swim (kind of)but I can swim enough to have fun for short periods of time in water over my head and enough to save my life if necessary. I still prefer to have a personal flotation device like a pool noodle or something so my mind is on having fun and off of the panic-y feeling of "I am in water over my head! My feed can't touch ground!" I don't know if that voice in the back of my mind that is still afraid of deep water will ever go away.

But the most important thing for me to do with that voice is to tell parents to make sure their children learn how to swim. Also teach them to respect the power of water and play safe in water including wearing life jackets when boating. Stay vigilant around pools (thank you to the parents above who stayed vigilant and got their daughters out in time!)

Same exact thing happened to my son when he was 3. He fell in the shallow end of the pool but it covered his head. Eyes wide open, vertical position, all the same as you described. Fortunately I was standing right next to him when it happened and pulled him out right away.

Reading this was interesting for me. I could have drowned one time that I remember. I was underestimating the waves at the beach and I was pushed over and pulled under. All I remember was being flipped over a couple times under the water and feeling like I was being sucked down. After reading your comment, I was reminded of that incident. I really don't remember thrashing at all or waving my hands around either. I actually only remember holding my breath because I knew it could be my last precious bit of oxygen, and my mind running over what had just happened. My eyes were wide open too, and I looked around quickly. I also remembered swimming classes, learning that panicking made it worse, and I also remembered my unusual inability to sink during an exercise--it took me an hour to force myself down to the bottom of the pool. I realized that floating back up to the surface would be easy for me, so I curled up in a ball, pulling my knees into my chest, relaxed, and I was back up to the surface in no time. I didn't get out of the water after that, but I respected it a lot more and stopped fooling around.

I did rescue someone from drowning one time as well. I was probably about 11. She was maybe 7. I couldn't stand her, honestly, and I swam out to the deep to get away from her, assuming she would do as she was told and stay in the shallow. She didn't though, but she seemed somewhat okay at first doing the doggy paddle. Then she stopped talking, her nose and mouth were barely visible above the surface of the water, but there was no splashing. I could see her hands come up and go down again, but still, not one splash. I was really confused because drowning portrayed in movies looks entirely different (and overdramatized), but I was pretty sure she had to be drowning because I couldn't imagine what I was seeing was her kidding around. She looked distressed even if she didn't make a sound. So I swam to her quickly, grabbed her, and pulled her out the way I was taught in swimming class. She never said a word about it after, and I wasn't entirely sure what was happening to her, so it's nice to finally have some closure on that.

Same thing happened with our daughter when she was very young. She was a few feet away from me on the pool stairs and I was watching her father on the pool deck fooling around just next to the stairs. I could see her with my peripheral vision and thought she was fine, but upon further inspection, her mouth and nose were below the water, eyes wide open looking right at me, NO Sound, NO movement, just drowning right next to us!!! Thank God I looked over more closely, we would have lost her. Never would I have imagined that a person who was drowning would not struggle, make noise, move or raise their hands. THANK YOU FOR THIS IMPORTANT ARTICLE!

Very informative article, thank you for sharing it!

I must apologize to all those lifeguards who were undoubtedly worried when i was a kid at the beach or at pools. One of my favourite games was to swim as quietly as possible and show my face only from the nose up. As if i were a shark or other predatory fish. I'm sure there were times where the beach lifeguard couldn't tell if i were upright or horizontal, as i worked on swimming without making a noticeable kick (the better to sneak up on unsuspecting souls and splash them with water).

I know how to spot signs of hypothermia but didn't know how to spot signs of drowning or that the victims are unable to help themselves. I hope i never have to use this knowledge; but if called upon to do so, i hope i have the strength required to help.

Thanks for the informing text on the subject. The mental pictures I saw when reading it are about the scariest ones I've had for a long time, and that from someone studying horror literature at the moment.
Will be sure to keep a keener eye when at the beach thanks to this.

Thank you SO MUCH for the Mario Vittone article on drowning. When I was a pre-teen, I was going underwater for the third time when my cousin grabbed me by the hair (she was standing on a big rock) and pulled me out of the water. I also didn't make any sound and often thought that maybe my life long fear of water over my head was irrational and I hadn't almost drowned. This information needs to be distributed more often because we all think drowning only ever looks like aquatic distress.

Good article. First one I’ve seen that explains the time I was saved from drowning off the coast of Pueto Rico. The one thing I’d add, at least in my case, is that I was too embarrassed to yell for help. And I remember thinking that was strange, the fact that I was embarrassed because I was drowning. I kept mouthing the word Help as I took breaths. The guy who saved me as I went down for the third time said he read my lips.

Thank you for sharing. That is interesting, that you were aware that you felt embarrassed in that moment - I can see how that feeling might come up. How amazing that someone read your lips and knew you needed saving.

I was in the Marine Corps at the time -- you know, tough guy and all that, so yes, I was embarrassed that I was drowning and needed help. The guy who saved me was a long way off. He pulled me up after my third time going down, and as I was going down I remember thinking that the sea urchins on the bottom were gonna be my graveyard, and it was gonna hurt landing on them.

Yes, I think most men are conditioned to feel embarrassed in a situation like that, even with it being so sudden and dangerous - I am almost certain that I, too, would have felt the same way, to feel so helpless.

I'm sure that it was a life-changing experience. Thank goodness for that fellow who spotted you that day, for his awareness, ability, and spirit of wanting to do all he could to save you. Thank you again for sharing - I think that every such experience is helpful for the community at large to know about, as it reinforces for us how quickly drowning can occur.

Our daughter nearly drowned when she was three. We were at a church party in a backyard that had a swimming pool. It wasn't a swim party and everyone was eating and talking and standing around. Suddenly one of the men there dove into the pool fully clothed and came up with my daughter. She had just stepped off the edge of the pool into the water without making a sound. If he hadn't seen her go in she would have drowned right in front of all of us. This was an important reminder.

Thank you so much Dr. Kim for this valuable article. I intend to review it often and keep my eyes open when near any body of water. Along this line of thought do you have an article on what to do when someone is in shock? Thank you again.