It is a far more common occurrence than you might think, yet most of us have no idea what drowning really looks like. Clue number one: forget everything you’ve seen in the films. There’s no yelling or splashing; it’s undramatic and easy to ignore.
Drowning is the third leading cause of accidental death worldwide, with children particularly susceptible, according to the World Health Organization. For infants up to the age of three, it’s the number one cause in countries like Australia where exposure to water is more regular.
Alarmingly, nearly half of these drownings will take place within 25 yards of the caregiver, and in 10 per cent of cases, the adult will watch it happen without realising.
Mario Vittone, a Florida-based expert in sea rescue, develops training courses on the subject of drowning. Below he explains how to spot the signs, and possibly even save a life.
A cautionary tale
The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and dashed 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.
How did this captain know – from 50 feet away – what the father couldn’t recognise from just ten?
Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognise 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 almost all of us) then you should make sure that you know what to look for whenever people enter the water.
Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” upon rescue, 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 Instinctive Drowning Response
– so-named by Francesco A Pia, PhD, 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 shouting 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 10 per cent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.