Drowning, Quietly

St. Michael's Life Preservers


It was the perfect summer evening with friends and family by the pool.  Laughter and chatter from the adults standing along the edges filled the night. Paul Simon’s “Graceland”, was cranked up- not quite to Tufnel’s Amplifier #11 in Spinal Tap- but loud enough for Rhymin’ Simon to out sing the August evening’s cricket choir.  Older kids migrated towards the deep end of the pool to play stealthy games of Sharks and Minnows and the more raucous game of Marco Polo.  The littlest ones, in swim vests and water wings, clung to the sides of the shallow end and hovered on the steps impressing themselves and their cousins with the daring feats of bubble blowing and frog kicks.

I come from a family of lifeguards and ocean swimmers.  We learned to swim as soon as we could walk and we taught our children to be early swimmers, as well.   We all have a healthy respect for the wildness and unpredictability of the gray Atlantic surf, for the murky brown of the farm pond, and for the serene blue waters of the neighborhood pools.   We are not complacent adults; we watched our children in the unguarded pools as well as guarded ocean beaches ready to charge in at the first frantic wave of the arm, or sound of coughing and sputtering, or panicked shout for help.

I found out on that August evening that drowning never happens that way- the way depicted in the movies and in television shows like Baywatch.   There is no crying- or yelling or frantic motions- in drowning.

My niece, too young for the deep end, but way too old at age 5 to hang out with the babies on the steps, had been playing in the shallow end of the pool.  I had noticed that she was creeping towards deeper water but I also knew she had basic swimming skills and that other adults were keeping watch.   I glanced back in time to see her large panicked brown eyes- the only part of her still remaining above water- quietly sink beneath the surface.  She did not yell, she did not flail.  Not one other adult out of at least six who were watching the pool noticed her quiet slip beneath the surface. And still, I hesitated- if only for a couple of seconds- because I could not comprehend that this quiet slip-sliding away was drowning. I shook off my hesitation and jumped in- fully clothed- and pulled her to the surface and it was only then- when she was in my arms and out of harm’s way that she began to cough and choke and cry.

U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer, Mario Vittone, writes in the gCaptain Blog that “Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect”. Vittone points readers to Dr. Francesca Pia who studies the Instinctive Drowning Response- how people physically respond to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water.  Pia’s studies indicate that there is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind.

Vittone concludes; “This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble – they are experiencing aquatic distress. Not always present before the instinctive drowning response, aquatic distress doesn’t last long – but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue.  They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.”

Be alert to the signs of the Instinctive Drowning Response.  Share these signs with your friends and family and encourage everyone to be safe this summer at the beach, at the pool or wherever you swim. Remember- it’s the quiet ones that you have to watch out for.


The instinctive drowning response:

  • 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.


Mary Catherine Cochran is a Senior Communications Project Manager at Howard County General Hospital: Johns Hopkins Medicine where, among other things, she manages and writes for the Well & Wise blog.


  1. mary anne lempa

    I have in the past pulled a 2yr old out of the shallow end…over his head, while his mother sat in her chair, chatting and doing needlepoint…never said thanks, but that’s OK with me…he is alive…

  2. Former lifeguard at a city pool

    As a teenager, I was a lifeguard. I pulled the same child out of the “deep” end of the baby pool, 3 times in less than 30 min. His Mom never noticed! After the 3rd time, I told her she needed to be watching him, because I had already pulled him to safety 3 times. She was quite put out with me.

    • I think parents can be more complacent when watching little ones in a baby pool. The danger doesn’t seem as real- but it is! Good for you to be on your toes!

  3. Mona Thomas

    After teaching CPR and first aide someone should make a comment on choking. When someone is choking, thier first responce is to usually leave the table and go to the restroom. Many never notice and many are found dead in restrooms! Many do not know to show the choking sign, (their hands around their throat) and many do not know what it means! If someone is coughing and can’t speak and they leave the table,FOLLOW THEM!

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