Drowning without a sound

Drowning, in real life, doesn't look or sound the way it does on TV. It's not loud. It's not thrashy. And it can happen just a few feet away from you without you even noticing. At Slate, Mario Vittone explains the Instinctive Drowning Response — a physiological knee-jerk reaction that pretty much prevents all the signs and signals most of us look for in order to identify a person in the water who needs help.


  1. Yeah – it’s worrying, particularly with kids.  I surf and sail, and learned (luckily) from training that the “staying still under the surface” is the surest sign of trouble.  Can’t see someone, go and look for them, fast!

  2. However, if you happen to wander within grabbing range of a drowning person, and they catch sight of you, you will definitely know something’s going on.  It’s like being pulled under by a threshing machine, I swear.

    1. I had a niece try to climb on my head once when she panicked in the water. If you can, grab’em from behind, at least that way it’s harder for them to claw their way on top of you.

    2. If you read the article, you’ll discover that what  you’ve experienced is actually someone in aquatic distress.  The article explicitly states that a drowning person will not be able to grab on to anything or otherwise assist in their own rescue.

      1. What Ito Kagehisa is referring to is not aquatic distress, but instead the climbing motion in IDR that Mario Vittone mentions in the article. This is not thrashing, and is not very noticeable visually, but *is* dangerous for trying to rescue someone. I’ve read a number of suggestions about approaching someone in IDR from the back instead of the front because of this.

  3. I saw this in action once at a local pool. A boy in our party, with friends and adults nearby, caught the lifeguard’s attention and was quickly rescued. We had no idea, he was just there in the pool, making no fuss, and then spluttering on the pool deck. I didn’t know til this article what lifeguards look for…

  4. I was at a wave pool at a water park a couple years ago standing knee deep watching my kids play when I noticed out of the corner of my eye someone floating by on their back.  I glanced over and saw an older guy, maybe in his 60’s and at first thought he was just back floating.  His arms were out to his sides just slowly moving like he was propelling himself a bit.  But I noticed him trying to sit up.  He was just about to get his face above water when another wave hit him and knocked him back under.  That’s when I saw the panic in his eyes.  Someone near me noticed too and two of us got to him at the same time and yanked him to his feet, coughing and sputtering.  He was incredibly grateful once he could speak.  But yeah he wasn’t thrashing or anything, just looked like he was kicking back enjoying a good back float.  Lifeguards hadn’t noticed at all.   Kind of shook me up a bit how I almost ignored him.  I’ve been at a wave pool a couple times since then and I tend to keep my eyes out for people around me as well as my own kids.  

  5. My grandmother was saved from drowning as a child.  She said that after she was under the water it was the calmest thing in the world.  “I kind of just let go.”

  6. I almost drowned when I was about 10. It only took me a few decades to go back in the water.

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