Drowning doesn’t look like drowning

Last year we went to visit friends in the North of Germany.

The day we arrived the weather was amazing so we decided to go to the local outdoor swimming pool.

When we got there my wife and I and three of our children were looking for a good spot near the pool while our eldest son, back then 7 years of age, decided to hop into the pool. He wasn’t able to swim at the time but as the deep part of the pool was clearly marked by a big rope we let him off.

Just a minute later, when we were busy unpacking our towels, blankets etc. our son came to us clearly upset and shook up. We were puzzled as he was no more than 5 meters away in the pool and we just left him there for literally a minute.

Our friend Stefan who was a bit behind us when he got to the pool told us what happened

Cian, our son, delighted with himself being first in the water before his older sisters, made his way to the rope that divided the deep pool from the shallow end.

What he didn’t realise was that the slope was very severe and the rope was loose and therefore pushed slightly into the deep end. Cian felt himself slipping into the deep water and felt paralysed.

Thankfully our friend Stefan saw all of this. His daughter attended some intensive swimming lessons where the parents were told how to identify a person who is drowning.

Stefan saw our son helplessly floating on the surface with his neck stretched so that his mouth was sticking out to gasp for air. He quickly jumped in and pulled him to safety.

We were absolutely shocked as we were literally only 5 meters away but completely oblivious to what was going on.

That was a year ago this week. Unfortunately there have been so many young lives lost due to drowning accidents in the last 2 weeks.  Therefore we decided to give you some more information on how to identify the drowning victim and what to do.

Please read the following facts very carefully and never ever leave a child unattended at the pool or beach.  We were very lucky and learned our lesson. Please don’t make the same mistake!

BE PREPARED We provide First Aid Training in Dublin covering CPR and AED if you would like to learn more.

Drowning is not the violent, splashing call for help that most people expect. 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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”


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

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.

Is there one way to be sure? Ask them, “Are you all right?” 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.

We provide First Aid Training in Dublin covering CPR and AED