Recognising Drowning


I have a theory that many of the tales of hidden currents that drag people under the water are actually caused by most people not recognising the signs of drowning. This is entirely understandable, since movie and TV representations rely on actors waving their arms, splashing wildly and shouting. This is very far from reality. If a swimmer does get into trouble in the water, how would you know?

What does drowning look like?

A drowning person is silent because they are trying to gulp air.
A drowning person is usually upright in the water, as though treading water.
A drowning person’s mouth will repeatedly bob below the surface and back up.
A drowning person’s head is tilted back as they try to keep their mouth above the water.
A drowning person might appear to be attempting to climb, as though up an invisible ladder, or press down on the water to raise themselves up (this might resemble doggy paddle, or treading water).
A drowning person will not splash as much as you think. There might be occasional slaps and splashes, but mostly there’s not much obvious evidence of a struggle.

The drowning phase lasts from 20 – 60 SECONDS. 

How to Rescue a Drowning Person

  • Before you do anything, CALL FOR HELP.
  • If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t go in.
  • Throw the casualty a lifebuoy, ring or rope if possible, or use a sturdy stick or some clothing to reach for them.
  • If you do approach a drowning person, do it from behind or they will grab you and try to climb up your body, pulling you under in the process.

Videos of real drownings (they all survive!) 

1. Notice the man in this video flails a little, but mostly he’s not splashing. Also note that the bystander is unsure of how to do CPR, although the rescuer clearly knows how and did successfully resuscitate the victim.

2. This is CCTV footage of a policeman rescuing a drowning 13 year old boy: there’s only a brief shot of the boy but notice how his head is tilted back (in an attempt to get air), there’s no splashing, and he’s sinking below the surface.

3. This little girl is drowning in a hotel pool, note that nobody notices even after she’s been pulled up from the bottom by a young boy:

4. This video of a rescue by a lifeguard has excellent commentary from an expert:

Other things you can do:

Learn basic life support (the RLSS have a range of water safety and basic lifesaving courses, see There are also courses in water rescue, but you will need to be a strong and confident swimmer (see RLSS or RNLI for options).

Know who to call in the event of an emergency and know where lifesaving devices such as lifebuoys and rings are kept locally.

Words : Lynne Roper
Pictures : Alamy Stock