Skip to content

COLUMN: Drowning is silent; familiarize yourself with the signs of it

Chilliwack reporter shares what signs of drowning look like after incident with son in pool
Drowning is “not the violent splashing and shouting for help that one sees on TV. There’s no screaming or flailing of arms,” writes reporter Jenna Hauck. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)

Many people do not know what drowning looks like.

I was one of those unfamiliar with the signs until I read an article last year called ‘Drowning doesn’t look like drowning.’

It’s not the violent splashing and shouting for help that one sees on TV. There’s no screaming or flailing of arms.

It’s silent.

It’s that silence that I noticed when I recently had a scare in the pool with my seven-year-old son.

We were at the Cheam Leisure Centre in Chilliwack playing in the shallow end. I was holding my four-year-old daughter when I looked over and saw my son about 20 feet away in the 1.1-metre deep water.

That depth may not seem like much. But my son is very short for his age – more like the size of your average five-year-old.

At first I thought he was playing, but then I noticed his head was tilted back and it looked like he was trying to grab something. The water went over his mouth once, twice, four times… I don’t know.

He was silent.

I plunked my daughter, who can’t swim, on a bench in the shallowest end.

“Don’t move,” I said firmly.

The thoughts that went through my brain as I left my younger child unattended so I could rescue my older child will never leave me. Am I doing the right thing? Am I choosing one child over the other? Will my daughter be in that same spot when I get back?

I could see my son in the distance still with his head tilted back, bobbing up and down.

I reached him within about 10 seconds and he was coughing and burping as I brought him to his sister.

Then he began to cry.

My son had recently finished his first set of swimming lessons and he was halfway through his second set of lessons when this happened.

Less than two weeks prior he had very quickly gained amazing confidence in the pool. He was no longer scared to bob his head under the water, no longer frightened to float on his back or front.

He probably had too much confidence that day.

He’s a bright boy and he later told me that the bobbing action that I saw was him trying to jump out of the water on his tippy toes so he could breathe.

Was he in the very beginning stages of drowning? Maybe. But maybe he wasn’t.

What I did know was he needed help.

Thankfully, he was comfortable in the water again soon after this happened.

Friends of mine who have their lifeguard certification commented after hearing about this. One said drowning is “quiet and subtle” and another said she had rescued several people, all of them in the shallow end.

RELATED: Good Samaritan tells story of finding body of young man who drowned at Cultus Lake

About 50 years ago, American lifeguard Francesco Pia identified common behaviours known as the ‘instinctive drowning response.’

In short, these are some of those behaviours:

1. Drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech – which is secondary – 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.

3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface… to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.

4. Drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, they cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.

5. People’s bodies remain upright in the water with no evidence of a supporting kick and, unless rescued, can only struggle on the surface of the water for 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

Please familiarize yourself with what drowning looks like. If I hadn’t, the incident with my son may not have turned out OK in the end.



Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Jenna Hauck

About the Author: Jenna Hauck

I started my career at The Chilliwack Progress in 2000 as a photojournalist.
Read more