You’re on the beach and you see someone in the water violently thrashing around and yelling for help. Is this person drowning?

Most people would think so, but what you’re seeing is likely closer to aquatic distress, which many times does not last long. These people can sometimes still assist in their own rescue by grabbing a lifeline or life ring.

Real drowning is not what most people expect it to be. There is not much splashing, no calling for help, no waving of the arms. Many people watching have no idea what’s happening.

Except in rare cases, drowning people are unable to call out for help. 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 again.

Here are some signs of a drowning in progress:

• 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 – body is vertical

• Hyperventilating or gasping

• Trying to roll over on their back

• Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder

• Appear to be pushing their way out of the water with arms extended outward

Pay close attention to your family and friends in the water, especially children, and remember that drowning might not look like drowning. If you suspect something is off, ask the person if they are OK. If they can answer, then they are most likely fine. If the person looks at you with a blank stare, you will need to act fast to get them 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 Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue.