Water-based activities provide endless opportunities to have fun in a safe, enjoyable and healthy manner. However, the danger of drowning is never far away. Drowning, accounting for 7% of all injury-related deaths, is the third leading cause of unintentional injury deaths worldwide.

While enjoying the aquatic environment, it is important to educate ourselves and others about potential risks as well as maintain awareness of our surroundings.

“Education and vigilance can change a potential tragedy into a mere scary event,” said Scott Mitcham, medical operations senior specialist at Global Rescue.

How to Spot Someone Drowning

Take a moment to view the above video: an actual rescue of a drowning child. Can you spot the child in trouble before the lifeguard does? This video is a great reminder that drowning doesn’t look like drowning. Notice how many people are within 15 feet of the victim. None of these people had a clue the child was at risk of drowning.

Most people get their mental image of drowning from the movies: a victim who thrashes about, screaming for help and waving frantically at bystanders. A distressed swimmer may do this briefly prior to actually beginning the drowning process — it is known as “aquatic distress.” Once the swimmer enters the Instinctive Drowning Response, it may be difficult to tell that he or she is in trouble.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, keep the following facts in mind to better identify swimmers in trouble:

  • 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.
  • The mouths of drowning people 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 their 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.
  • Drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. They 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.

Look for these signs of drowning when people are in the water:

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

Water Safety Tips

Supervise children at all times.

“Children ages 1-4 have the highest drowning risk; drowning kills more children in this age range than any other cause, excluding birth defects,” said Dave Keaveny, medical operations specialist at Global Rescue.

According to the USA Swimming Foundation, formal swim lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88%. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends starting swim lessons as early as age 1; other experts recommend starting when the child is able to tread water and float, around age 4.

Communication with your travel companions is key if you’re spending the day near the water.

“Most incidents occur when it is assumed older children are watching out for their younger siblings. Many parents share near-miss tales where they checked their phone quickly and looked up to discover their child is not visible anymore,” Keaveny said. “When enjoying the water with family and friends, communicate clearly with other adults as to whom is actively watching the children, especially the youngest. “

The American Red Cross offers detailed information on water safety for all ages and all types of water activities: home pools, hot tubs, rivers, lakes, streams and oceans.


“We encourage everyone to adhere to basic safety practices while on the water,” Mitcham said. “Wear life vests if you are in a boat, even if it is hot. If you don’t like the clunky vests, spring for a paddle sports vest. They are much more comfortable, and can be worn all day without a problem.”

What to Do

If you see someone drowning, call for help or alert the lifeguard.

“Make noise and get as many people as possible aware that a water rescue is taking place,” Mitcham said. “Call for help or have a bystander call. Do not assume someone has already called for help.”

The U.S. Army recommends these four basic steps: Reach, Throw, Row, Don’t Go!

  • Reach – Reach out to the victim with an arm while holding on to something stable: dock, boat or tree. Reach out with a pole, stick, float, etc.
  • Throw – If you can’t reach them, throw a lifebuoy ring, throw rope, or life jacket, etc. to the victim. “A throw rope or a bag rope — a rope coiled up in a bag that floats on the surface of the water when thrown to the victim — are relatively inexpensive,” Mitcham said. “They can fit into any good-sized beach or boat bag.”
  • Row – If you have a watercraft and are proficient enough to use it, use that to reach the victim. Or call out to a nearby boat able to reach the victim faster. “Be mindful of the propeller on approach,” Mitcham said.
  • Don’t Go – Unless you are trained in water rescue, do not swim out to rescue the victim. Even a small child can easily drown an adult if the adult is not trained. “Placing a second person in the water is a last resort,” Mitcham said. “There is already one victim in the water — adding another person can potentially add another victim.”

A water rescue is a dangerous situation and rescuers should have training and experience.

“A drowning victim will grab you as you approach them and possibly pull the rescuer down in an effort to surface,” Mitcham said. “The drowning victim will often appear to be ‘attacking’ the rescuer. This is not the case — just a desperate effort to hold on to something that floats.”

Mitcham says it is imperative the rescuer wear an U.S. Coast Guard-approved floatation device, no matter their swimming ability. “The reason for this is simply due to the circumstances surrounding a drowning victim: adrenaline, fear, swimming longer than normal distances to reach the victim and having to return to safety with a victim,” he said. “It is exhausting for most if not everyone.”

“Row, throw, then go is the correct approach for a drowning victim. If there is a boat available, use it, throw the victim something that will float so that they may grab onto it,” Mitcham said. “If all else fails, then enter the water, wearing a life jacket, and go to the victim.”

[Related Reading: Summer Travel Safety]

Summer means lots of travel near and far. Whether you’re visiting coastal beaches, inland lakes or resort pools, a Global Rescue family membership is an ideal item to have handy in case the unexpected occurs.