After the recent drowning death of a 17-year-old student and rugby player Abdul-Jamal Ottun at Shawnigan Lake, one Victoria buzz fan suggested we share how to recognize a drowning person.

So, here are some basic tips.

Of course, this article can’t act as a lifeguard and won’t be able to cover all of the possible drowning situations. However, we hope it acts to raise awareness and helps readers to prevent future tragic events.

First, we suggest watching this video of a real life drowning and lifeguard rescue.

The Instinctive Drowning Response

Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., described what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water as “The Instinctive Drowning Response”. It doesn’t look how you might expect. There’s very little splashing, waving, yelling, or calls for help.

In ten percent of drownings, an onlooker will actually watch on, having no idea what is happening. Events in real life aren’t always portrayed the same in movies.

Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene Magazine, described the instinctive drowning response like this:
  1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing and speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. (Source: On Scene Magazine: Fall 2006)

This doesn’t mean that a person thrashing and yelling for help isn’t in real trouble. They’re still experiencing what’s called “Aquatic Distress”.

Not always present before the Instinctive Drowning Response, Aquatic Distress doesn’t last long – but unlike people in the midst of drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue. They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.

A List of Potential Drowning Symptoms

Instead of judging someone’s wellbeing based on the appearance of Aquatic Distress, try looking for these other signs:

  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder.
  • Head low in the water, while their mouth is at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Not using legs while vertical in the water
  • Trying to roll over onto their back



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