Recognising a person who is drowning

A non-swimmer drowning

What does a drowning person look like?

A drowning victim is not what you typically might see in the movies — arms splashing, person yelling for help. In reality, drowning is much more silent and is often mistaken for playing as there is no yelling. It is called the instinctive drowning response.

The stereotypical 'drowning' portrayed in the movies or on TV is actually known as aquatic distress, which happens before a person begins to drown. Someone in distress can still control their movement, reach out to catch a flotation device, and scream.

When drowning begins, however, a person can no longer yell or control their body. They are vertical in the water, sometimes bobbing up and down, with hands extended partially or fully to their sides. Children can look like they're dog paddling or playing a game. But silence — among children, especially — is a warning that something could be deadly wrong.

In 2022-23, 31 people drowned in Western Australia, with 39% of these happening during summer. In the warmer months you are more likely to be faced with an incident in which you need to recognise that a person is drowning and act to save their life.

How to recognise that a person is drowning

Here are our 6 top tips:

  • The victim turns toward land or safety
  • Their head is low in the water, with their mouth at water level
  • Their head is tilted back with their mouth opening and closing as they gasp for air
  • They are not moving in any direction other than bobbing up and down at water line with their body vertical
  • Sometimes they appear to be climbing an invisible ladder
  • The adult drowning victim can only sustain themselves on top of the water for about 20 - 60 secs, while for a child that time is a lot shorter.

Is there a risk in undertaking a rescue?

Yes. 5% of people who drowned in 2022-23 were attempting to rescue people in trouble. It is important not to put yourself in danger.

The drowning victim who is in a panic will not care about anyone else’s safety as they try to stay alive, often pushing rescuers under the water to keep themselves afloat.

Whenever you’re by the water, whether working at the pool or recreating with friends, be aware of those around you and look out for signs of a person who may be drowning – you may be the one who saves their life!

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