You’re on the beach and you see someone in the water yelling for help and violently thrashing around – is he drowning?

Most people would think so, but this kind of behavior is closer to aquatic distress – which many times does not last long. In these situations, people can sometimes still assist in their own rescue by grabbing a lifeline or life ring.

Real drowning is not what most people expect. There is not much splashing, no calling for help or waving of the arms.

Many people watching have no idea of what’s happening.

According to Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., except in rare cases, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.

When the mouths of drowning people are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly before sinking below the surface of the water again and therefore do not have time to call out.

Drowning people also cannot wave for help. They instinctively extend their arms and press down on the water’s surface to create leverage so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe. Their bodies might also be upright in the water with no sign of kicking. They might have only 20 to 60 seconds before they go under.

All this was named the “Instinctive Drowning Response” by Dr. Pia; it is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water.

Here are some signs of drowning:

• 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 roll over onto the back

• Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder

So, pay attention – when you see someone in the water, especially children, remember that drowning might not look like drowning. If you suspect something is “off,” ask the person if he is OK. If he can answer, then he is most likely OK.

If the person looks at you with a blank stare, you will need to act fast to get him out of the water.

Parents should note that children playing in the water are usually pretty noisy. When they get quiet, make sure you immediately check to see what’s going on.

Cinda Seamon is the fire and life safety educator for the Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue.