Thetis Lake (Photo by Ryan Holder/Instagram)

After two 16-year-old students nearly drowned at Thetis Lake last year, some readers wondered how to best spot someone who may be drowning.

While there hasn’t been a similar incident this summer so far (knock on wood), we thought it wise to offer a quick refresher.

According to the Lifesaving Society Canada, there were 313 drowning deaths nationwide in 2015, with 67 of them in B.C.

The demographic with the highest rate of fatalities is young adults aged 20–34, and seniors 65 and older.

As seen in the video below, drowning often doesn’t look how it does in the movies:

The instinctive drowning response

Coined by researcher Francesco A. Pia, the instinctive drowning response is our body’s natural reaction when it’s close to drowning.


Rather than waving one’s arms and yelling for help, drowning itself is quick and silent. The instinctive drowning response is characterized by a lack of leg movement, the body being in an upright position, and an inability to talk or keep the mouth consistently above water.

As well, people who are close to drowning cannot voluntarily control their arm movements; instead, they will involuntarily push down on the water with their arms in an attempt to elevate themselves above the surface and take a breath. These actions continue for about 20 to 60 seconds before the body sinks underwater.

Remember: someone who is thrashing and yelling could still need help and be in what’s called aquatic distress. And while it doesn’t last long, unlike drowning, the person can still assist in their own rescue, whether its grabbing a throw ring or lifeline.

Some other visible symptoms of drowning include:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes open, with fear evident on the face
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back to float