Most people assume that a drowning person will splash, yell, and wave for help; and why
wouldn’t they? That’s what we see on television. Without training, we are conditioned
first to think of drowning as a violent struggle that is noisy and physical. It is not.
Characteristics of the Instinctive Drowning Response:
1. 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.
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
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, these
drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds
before submersion occurs.
article from the fall 2006 issue of ON SCENE, THE JOURNAL OF U.S. COAST GUARD SEARCH AND RESCUE
How to Recognize Instinctive Drowning Response