What Drowning REALLY Looks Like

by Brett & Kate McKay on July 2, 2013 · 29 Comments

in Manly Skills, Survival, Visual Guides

Many people think that this is what drowning looks like, but thrashing in the water is actually a sign of aquatic distress. The person is in trouble, but can still take part in their own rescue by grabbing onto something. After this point the Instinctive Drowning Response sets in. The person’s mouth bobs above and below the water and they press down on the water laterally to try to stay above it, and thus they cannot wave or yell for help. So be sure to look for these 10 quieter signs of drowning instead.  1. Head low in water, mouth at water level. 2. Head titled back with mouth open. 3. Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus. 4. Eyes closed. 5. Hair over forehead or eyes. 6. Not using legs – vertical. 7. Hyperventilating or gasping. 8. Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway. 9. Trying to roll over on the back. 10. Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder.

If you’re heading out to the beach or lake this summer, be sure to know the 10 “quieter” signs of drowning — they’re easy to miss.

Source: Mario Vittone

Illustration by Ted Slampyak

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 zach jones July 2, 2013 at 8:30 pm

wow. This makes sense but its something I never would have thought about. Very relevant since I will be taking my brother who cannot swim to camp at a lake next week.

2 John Lapczynski July 2, 2013 at 9:09 pm

As a lifeguard in the past I really appreciate this post because it is true many people do not know what a drowning person actually looks like. Thanks, as always amazing content!

3 Brett July 2, 2013 at 10:09 pm

This is great, in a drowning all you are likely to see is the tip of the nose and the mouth at the surface.

4 Jay July 2, 2013 at 11:23 pm

John has a great point, huge misconception of what drowning is like. This is a great post and gents, as a life guard we have a policy, if your at a beach or a pool, if you don’t know, go. It’s just always better to be safe then having to do CPR later.

5 Cory July 2, 2013 at 11:31 pm

I too spent a large portion of my youth as a lifeguard. I have had several saves in which the victim did not fit the general mold of “thrashing violently” in the water, but no doubt, would never have made it to shore.
I think it is important to remember that “active drowning” only lasts between 15-30 seconds depending on the fitness and panic level of the individual. After that, “passive drowning” ensues and the victim takes on these less obvious signs before quickly submerging under the water.
I now work periodically in emergency departments as a student and have had the unfortunate experience of witnessing multiple drowning deaths. In almost all of the cases, the parent or supervising adult claims that they never heard any form of struggle.
This is a frightening topic to discuss and definitely every parent’s worse nightmare, but it is critically important to never leave children unattended near the waters.

6 Dick Fitzwell July 2, 2013 at 11:55 pm

Great article. Truly useful in saving another’s life some day

7 Daniel July 3, 2013 at 1:41 am

I lost a friend who drowned and we were not equipped to save him. This information, coupled with thorough first aid knowledge are essential life skills. You do NOT want to try saving someone’s life by falling back on knowledge gained from Baywatch episodes. I promise you.

8 MasterOfSparks July 3, 2013 at 4:58 am

Here’s a tip for you: Don’t count on the lifeguard to save you!

I had just moved out to LA from Kansas and paid a visit to Malibu Beach. I wanted to do a little body surfing so like a typical Kansan I went over where the surfers were because that’s where the bigger waves were. WTF did I know? I was from Kansas! I was having a GREAT time until a surfer got a little too close to me on his board. I didn’t know if he saw me so I ducked under as he got closer figuring he’d go right over me. I resurfaced just in time to get slammed by a wave. Then several more. Each time it happened I got more disoriented and more tired. I realized that I was in trouble. And I didn’t think I could make it to shore. So I started thrashing around trying to get the life guard’s attention. Yeah it was embarrassing as H–l but I didn’t want to drown. So I’m looking over at the life guard, trying to get his attention, when I realized someone else already HAD his attention. A couple of hot girls he was chatting up at the guard tower. He wasn’t paying a bit of attention to anyone in the water. When it dawned on me that he was useless I decided I would have to save myself. Fortunately I was in great shape having spent several months in the gym getting in shape for the beach. Unfortunately I found out that muscle sinks while fat floats. It took every bit of energy I had to drag myself ashore where I collapsed for a few minutes in total exhaustion. I hope others can learn from my mistakes. And to all you horny life guards reading this thanks for f—king NOTHING! And btw you should advise your readers that unless they are properly trained they shouldn’t try to grab hold of a drowning person. Use a rope or floatation device instead. You don’t want them pulling you under with them.

9 Darren July 3, 2013 at 5:12 am

Good article, I think an article on how to rescue someone without puting yourself in danger would be a good follow up

10 John Lapczynski July 3, 2013 at 8:35 am

@MasterofSparks – I am sorry for the experience you had on the shores of LA, but you have to remember not all lifeguards are like that, in fact most are extremely attentive and will act instantaneously. The problem with some guards is they will not look outside their “zone,” I can not be sure where you were located at this incident but it could of been that you were not in his guarding zone . I know that is horrible to say but it does happen. There are also just plain bad lifeguards also and I will not be naive and say there are not. However, they all should have a knowledge of how to do their job and perform CPR. It is always better to have a lifeguard then none at all.

I wish you the best of luck with any future water activities and better luck with seeing more attentive lifeguards. You are also right to say not to put yourself in danger, some great things to use as you said are a rope and flotation device. However, if those are not handy you can use a long stick, or if it is close to a dock or edge of a pool you can use your leg or arm but make sure you lay down onto the deck.

11 Todd July 3, 2013 at 11:24 am

I was just reading about and talking to someone who “drowned” (and was rescucitated) about this. Apparently drowning is horrible till your lungs fill with water, then it’s fairly calm. Which seems to align with the drawings above.

12 Stephen Wood July 3, 2013 at 12:23 pm

I really appreciate posts like this. Without someone with experience explaining this I would have never known what to look for. Thank you!

13 Dai July 3, 2013 at 2:53 pm

The image of the guy thrashing in the water looks like he’s climbing an invisible ladder made for the hulk.

It’s amazing how subtle some of these signs are since most people look like this, even while standing with the water chest high.

Kudos to the lifeguards (except for MasterOfSparks lifeguard)

14 Steve July 3, 2013 at 3:01 pm

The second most important skill to know, aside from assessing a drowning victim is to understand your own capabilities as a rescuer. Scene safety is huge. And whether you have the physical stamina to rescue a large dude even with a rescue tube. So to all those citizens: it is better to wait for trained help than to have one more drowning victim in the water. The person actively drowning will do ANYTHING to stay alive and that includes drowning the rescuer in the process. I like to think of lifeguarding part first responder-part water combat survival. Hahaha, but seriously!

15 Josh July 3, 2013 at 3:17 pm

I recommend doing some youtube searches about this; you’ll see people quietly drowning in crowded, public beaches before being assisted by a lifegaurd. It’s good to see how subtle the signs are.

16 Spencer Meehan July 3, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Thanks for posting this. This is really important stuff – I was a lifeguard for many years and saw instances of people starting to drown. First, it truly takes a moment to register that “this is really happening”. But if you know what to look for, you can intervene and safe a life. Remember, water is powerful – always be on the lookout. When I’m at a pool party with kids, I always stay near the water and keep an eye out. I really am glad you guys posted this piece – it’s very important for us to know and remember!

17 Paulo July 4, 2013 at 4:50 pm

Excelent work, thanks a lot for that. I’ve read a long article about this last week, but the image condenses pretty much everything. I’ve took the liberty to translate it to portuguese (keeping your trademark on it, of course) to be shared in Brazil and other countries, I expect you see no problem with that.
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10200890301451498&set=a.1079628482628.12579.1583766132&type=1&theater

18 Dean July 4, 2013 at 5:42 pm

I can vouch for this, especially the first three panels. This happened to me in a swimming pool when I was a child. I had drifted towards the deeper end where my feet were unable to touch the floor of the pool. The water was like lead around my limbs, and my mouth kept going under, even just by a few inches. I managed to get above the surface just long enough to shout “help!”. The lifeguard was on his feet in an instant, but thankfully my father caught me just in time. It all happened so quickly, and there was definitely no dramatic flailing of limbs as you might see on television!

Posts like this remind me why this is one of my favourite sites around. Thanks guys!

19 Troy Wingard July 4, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Great article, but I think that everyone should come from this understanding that anyone can drown; both swimmers and non-swimmers alike. I strongly suggest that everyone research and take the drown-proofing course pioneered by Coach Fred Lanoue. The best part is that drownproofing is a simple technique that can be used even if a person is a non-swimmer. Check out drownproofing.com for more information.

20 Christian V. July 6, 2013 at 12:41 am

As a lifeguard for a year now, I see how different organizations teach lifeguards how to respond and spot a person in distress. Honestly all that matters in trying to spot a drowning victim is the ideology of “If You Don’t Know Go” because even if the person was truly fine if something does not look right or feel right it is better to be proactive in preventing a drowning than waiting for it to happen and then trying to make the rescue. It only takes 20 seconds before the person will go through the first two stages of drowning and then become unconscious victims.

21 Mykey July 26, 2013 at 7:03 am

Hi. Nice post. I’m a lifeguard at the Jersey shore and would just like to add that another common sign of drowning or aquatic distress involves rapid changing of strokes. The victim’s muscles begin to tire and they often switch from freestyle (crawl) to breaststroke, to side stroke, or any combination of those (or others perhaps).

Perhaps most importantly, swimmers in distress, VERY rarely call out or wave for help. They are often embarrassed or even preoccupied with trying to stay above the surface of the water. It’s very important to keep these things in mind.

Note: Also be sure to have a thorough understanding of riptides (how they work, what they look like, how to get out of them) before going to the beach this summer.

Sorry for the soapbox style rant, but it’s very important information.

22 Brigitte August 3, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Hello, I just discovered your site today and read the plane-crash surival tips first (excellent!)
There have been a lot of drownings in France this summer. I have read the “drownproofing” technique and would like to suggest an even easier method: anyone turning on his/her back and going completely limp will notice that their skull has buoyancy (because brain matter is fatty) and the water will surround the face, leaving the ears submerged but the rest of the face, nose, mouth and eyes, dry. The hardest part is to relax but if tried in normal circumstances it’s easy to test. Saudi princes teach their offspring to survive this way if they accidentally fall into the swimming pool. Many deaths could be avoided this way.

23 Cara August 4, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Oh my gosh this freaked me out. Just a week ago, I was swimming and my friend and I were going to swim to the deep end, she lied and said she could swim. So when we got to about six feet, above both our heads, she clung to me and both our head were being pushed underwater, her weight on me made it so I couldn’t breath, being underwater. This was exactly what I was doing. I thought I was going to die. It was terrifying.

24 Michael H August 11, 2013 at 1:13 am

Once as a kid I fell into water while trying to feed ducks. Not for a single moment did I realize I was drowning- I was just floating underwater staring out at the lake I could see. Lucky up on deck I had about 30-40 (no exaggeration) family members so I was pulled out rather quickly.

25 Xavier August 29, 2013 at 4:47 pm

I’ve been close to drawning this summer and i can identify with a few of this.
I am a person who lives alot what i think, and i am able to take control of myself by instinct.

The sea was pulling really hard, and i did not notice this due to the irregularity of the waves.
there could be a calm sea, 5 minutes without waves, and then it would start pulling like crasy due to the wind.

i found myself far away from shore, no trouble, i started swimming back to shore, but the sea started pulling.
I was completly exausted and the waves were huge so i could not flip myself up and rest my muscles.
It was a hell of a scare but i managed to get to shore, i still dont know how i did that… but keeping your mind in place and your thought on the right thing is the main thing. saving your strength controlling your breathing and NOT thinking about giving up or death or any negative thought…

Very usefull post!

26 Mike M. Lin September 2, 2013 at 9:18 pm

I watched as my brother-in-law almost drowned without realizing he was in trouble. He dove into the middle of a lake from a house boat. He was bobbing up and down in the water, taking a breath each time he came up, and it looked like he was doing an awkward freestyle stroke. He didn’t make a sound. Luckily someone else noticed he was in trouble. I thought that’s just how he swam. It wasn’t nearly as obvious as it seems in the movies. This is a good lesson to learn before you need it.

27 T.C. January 9, 2014 at 8:56 pm

I won’t forget when my friends step day threw me in the deep end when I didn’t know how to swim as a kid…. I wanted kill him. He stood there a yelled survival! survival! I then grab my friend and we both went down and we eventually made it back……. no thanks to that bastard.

28 Helen Cowles January 14, 2014 at 9:34 pm

This makes me think more seriously about two situations where I was swimming with a friend in a neighborhood pool and this friend doesn’t know how to tread water enough to safely stay in deep water and both times this person went under and didn’t do anything to let me know he was in trouble. Thankfully I was a lifeguard at one time and both times, I pulled him out. This description makes me really think that I saved this person’s life twice. And I would do it again in a heartbeat. Now I know more of what the signs are to look for.

29 Tanner C March 8, 2014 at 6:05 pm

This artical reminds me of last summer when I couldnt swim at all I went to a youth christian camp and we went white water rafting on a river in Wisconsin and I did the same camp program the year before without anything going wrong.
The last time I was paired up with 2 lifeguards, one being a counselor, while on a 2 person raft. At the end of the journey is a 20-30ft waterfall that is possible to go off of alright.
We go down a speedy slope and drop a few feet being within 10 feet of the waterfall and we slow down a lot. Somehow the current spun us to a rock on the left and bumped it with the front of the raft and started going backwards and stopped, until we got launched off the waterfall going vertical.
At this time and on I was primarily blanked out, screaming and without being able to think and I landed on top of the other camper. I unfortunately latched onto his neck and didnt know that I was doing that while his foot was stuck in between 2 rocks and then he got himself unstuck and then he swam upwards and my counselor gets me off of the other kid and then gets us into a raft. This made drowning my biggest fear and got me to learn how to swim the next day when we went to a lake. It’s not a pleasant way to want to learn how to swim, but that’s unfortunately what it took for me to want to. Every time now since then that I’m in water I try to get better at it.

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