What drowning really looks like (Hint: It’s not what you think)

Arms flail, splashes fly and a voice screams out: “Help me!”

That’s what drowning looks like, right? Wrong.

Turns out movie drowning and actual drowning aren’t even close cousins. Someone who is actually drowning undergoes an involuntary, automatic set of behaviors known as instinctive drowning response. It’s silent, and it’s scary.

Being able to identify true drowning behaviors is critical as you head out to summer camp with Scouts or even to the local lake or pool with your kids.

The British Red Cross says drowning is subtle, quiet and quick.

1. It’s subtle

While they may splash around and shout while in aquatic distress, once instinctive drowning response kicks in, the drowning person will instinctively spread his arms and paddle down in an attempt to stay above the surface. No matter how good an idea it might seem, a person can’t just “stop drowning” for a few seconds to wave for help – it’s literally beyond their control.

2. It’s quiet

A drowning person will alternately dip below the water and briefly back up again. He’s struggling so hard just to exhale and inhale again — to actually breathe — that speaking doesn’t even come into it.

3. It’s quick

Someone who is drowning will only last from 20 to 60 seconds before succumbing. Scout-age kids are at the lower end of that time spectrum, so it’s vital to recognize the danger signs. Of course, if someone is splashing and shouting for help (aquatic distress) they still need immediate help, but the time to really worry is when they go quiet.

Eight warning signs of drowning

  1. Head low in water, mouth at water level.
  2. Head tilted back with open mouth.
  3. Glassy eyes that are unable to focus, or closed eyes.
  4. Not kicking with legs.
  5. Hair covering the forehead or eyes for prolonged period.
  6. Gasping for breath or hyperventilating.
  7. Inability to respond to the question: “Are you OK?”
  8. Silence.

Source: British Red Cross

Pledge to Pool Safely this summer

The Boy Scouts of America is a supporter in the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Pool Safely efforts.

The pledges below are a great way to get yourself and your kids involved in this important effort.

Pool Safely pledge for kids

I, ___________________, pledge to Pool Safely in 2014 I will never swim alone and will ask my parents to sign me up for swimming lessons. I will stay away from drains in the pool or hot tub. I will have fun, but always be safe when I’m in and around the water.

Sign the kids’ pledge here.

Pool Safely pledge for adults

I, , pledge to Pool Safely in 2014 I pledge to (check all that are applicable):

  • Designate a water watcher every single time children in my care are in or near the water.
  • Make sure my kids know how to swim.
  • As a parent or guardian, learn CPR.
  • Always remove portable pool ladders when not in use.
  • Ensure all permanent pools have a proper fence and gate and safe drain covers.

Sign the adult pledge and learn more here.

H/T: Thanks to Mark Ray, who blogged about this on his blog, and to the BSA’s Keith Christopher for tip.


  1. I agree with everything Bryan says. I would add that as an aquatics counselor and Water Safety Instructor many years ago, I used to look for signs even before the ones Bryan described. Swimming should be fun. As I scanned back and forth across the swimming area, I would look for which swimmers looked comfortable and having fun, and which were not. A swimmer making good progress and swimming comfortably would probably be doing the same on the next scan. A person resting floating with his face well out of the water, or one treading water with face easily out of the water was not likely to get in trouble. A swimmer not making progress, or someone struggling to stay up does not look like they are having fun. They might not yet be in need of rescue, but I would be very sure that I identified and evaluated that person on every scan across the area. If they got worse rather than better, they might soon be showing the signs Bryan describes, and quickly became a candidate for a ring buoy, our rescue tool of choice. Knowing who might get in trouble allows the guard or watcher to be extra watchful and respond faster when needed. The time between really getting in trouble and sinking below the surface can be very short.

  2. The year after I learned this (through Lifesaving MB and ARC lifeguard courses), I rescued a friend in a private pool. If everyone scans the water each time the exit and enter it, they can make the world a better place.

  3. There is an actual film available that shows people drowning (see below). Frank Pia was the head lifeguard at Orchard Beach, Bronx, NY. Orchard Beach is on the Long Island Sound near City Island. The water bottom is a gentle slope out to about a 4-foot depth and then there is a step drop to a 10-foot depth. The lifeguards could see this depth change in their towers due the darkening of the water and watched that location. People would invariably step off the ledge and start to drown. The Lifeguards in the towers would spot them and the lifeguards on the ground would perform the rescue.

    Frank Pia filmed the drowning/rescues and for one who has been swimming since he was 5 years old, it was an eyeopener!

    Frank Pia (Producer/Director). (1970). On Drowning [Motion picture]. New York: Water Safety Films Inc. (http://www.pia-enterprises.com/watersafety.html)

  4. I heard about the Pia video and wanted to get a copy to show in lifeguarding class. So I google Pia’s info and called to order his DVD. Dr. Pia answered the phone and took my order. When he heard it was for a BSA class he threw in another one for free. Quite a guy.

  5. As a Boy Scout Camp Aquatic instructor and then Director for 15 summers, I learned that relaxation, learning to float, and learning to swim are the keys to a fun aquatic experience. I pulled out far too many boys who said they could swim out of the swimmers area, because they could not swim. Getting tense makes it worse. Floating on the back, arching the back, and relaxing can mean life or death. Alan Eggleston

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