Drowning is not what you think it is

Untrained people (that would be YOU) often fail to recognize drowning. In this way, people often drown mere feet away from those who could rescue them. One in ten children who will drown this year will drown with their parents watching the process, not knowing what they are looking at.

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 …


I’m thinking this is not woo. If you know better, please comment below.

Hat tip: Dale Husband.


  1. #1 becca
    August 9, 2010

    I can’t speak to the accuracy of the numbers, but this is pretty much what they teach in Red Cross lifeguarding training. You don’t look for kids splashing.

  2. #2 Sean
    August 9, 2010

    Nope. Not woo. Just solid good observational science by someone who was a lay scientist when he started his work. That guy has the instincts of a great naturalist (ironically, his studies would probably not have been approved by an institutional review board nowadays, though they have probably done enormous to save lives through training of lifesavers).

  3. #3 Omega Centauri
    August 9, 2010

    I can easily believe it. When I had lifegaurd training forty years ago they didn’t teach this stuff, but assumed the “victim” would be terrified and by irrational clinging be a danger to the rescuer as well. So we were taught how to approach and carry the victim without enabling him to grab you.

    The only “rescue” I ever did was twenty years later, we were having lunch near a dock and a kid fell in. He was trashing and his parents ignored it (i.e. didn’t think anything was amiss). I simply reached down and pulled him up. It was clear that he was frightened. My friends claimed I was a hero, but I thought nothing og it -took me less time than typing this. But, it shows that it is very easy to be fooled that everything is fine.

  4. #4 Adela
    August 9, 2010

    Having had a couple close calls in the water myself I can tell you it is a silent process. I’m still here by dumb luck not because some one nearby could figure it out and intervene. I still have nightmares of people standing there watching me drown and not doing anything about it.

  5. #5 James Davis
    August 9, 2010

    Not woo to the best of my knowledge. This is just what we learned in diving so as to be able to safely recognize when people are having trouble.

  6. #6 José
    August 10, 2010

    I lost a friend last weekend, one of the sweetest, happiest men I have ever known. He was swimming in a lake with his family, and no one heard or saw a thing. He was just there one minute, and gone the next.

  7. #7 Rogue Epidemiologist
    August 10, 2010

    Read the article. Now I’m a pretty good swimmer, but OMFG, the article just terrified me.