Instinctive Drowning Response – Vital Knowledge for Scuba Divers and Swimmers

by Andy Davis

All divers should be aware of Instinctive Drowning Response.  Those scuba instructors (and agencies!) responsible for teaching rescue diver courses should make a priority to update their syllabus and materials in recognition of the ‘real-world’ signs of a drowning victim.

Several headlines that I read today about avoidable drownings in the Philippines brought to mind an article that I read some time ago, which subsequently became a critical part of the Rescue Diver course that I teach.

instinctive drowning response padi rescue diver scuba

Drowning doesn’t look like drowning!

This headline, ‘Cops’ R&R turns tragic: Buddy drowns in pool‘ from the Philippine Daily Inquirer illustrates the misconceptions that so many people have about the signs of a drowning victim. The words that stand out are “His companions failed to notice”.  A second headline ‘Woman drowns at a beach resort in Gapo‘, make a similar reference to the victim being accompanied, but their buddies never noticed the drowning – until it was too late.

One might assume that both instances a high degree of inattention from the victim’s friends, because people drown noisily – with screaming, shouting and splashing.  After all, isn’t this what we see in Hollywood movies and Rescue Diver videos?  Isn’t it what we (divers) are taught to look out for… and respond to?

stereotype drowning victim instinctive drowning response rescue diver

This photo illustrates the false stereotype drowning ‘victim’, as taught on many Rescue Diver courses. It is a dangerous misconception.

That’s what I was taught when I learned diving rescue skills.  It’s what I believed for a very long time – until I read a ground-breaking and informative article in ‘On Scene‘, the Journal of U.S. Coastguard Search and Rescue.  

The article, entitled “It Doesn’t Look Like They’re Drowning – How To Recognize the Instinctive Drowning Response“, by Aviation Survival Technician First Class Mario Vittone and Francesco A. Pia, PhD, deals with the real-world reactions of a drowning victim.

Having subsequently performed three real-life rescues of swimmers/divers in distress at the surface, I have to agree absolutely with what Mario Vittone identifies as the ‘Instinctive Drowning Response’.  Victims in real danger of drowning rarely act in a way that we are taught to recognize as distress.

This is important reading for divers!

Frequently taught lessons on rescue techniques and the conduct of scenario-based training on rescue courses tends to favour the ‘Hollywood’ illusion of a drowning victim.  That being the ‘classic’ representation of a hollering, splashing…and easily recognizable…victim in distress.

instinctive drowning response rescue dive scuba padi

The reality is that people drown quietly… often un-noticed by those around them.

The reality of Instinctive Drowning Response is that we are unlikely to perceive that a person is at severe risk, and requires immediate aid until it is too late.  Also, if presented with multiple victims at the surface we are likely to incorrectly prioritize our rescue – concentrating on the ‘obvious’ victim, whilst the truly in-danger victim slides unnoticed below the surface, to be lost.

Vittone describes the ‘classic’ signs of drowning (screaming, yelling, waving etc) as ‘Aquatic Distress‘.  These are differentiated from the instinctive drowning response by the fact that the victim retains the mental and physical capacity to recognize their situation and respond appropriately by raising the alarm and seeking assistance.  If they can shout, they are breathing okay.  If they can wave their arms, or splash the water, then they have retained some buoyancy and are not in immediate danger of submersion and drowning.

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 equipment.

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 by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

Vittone produced this video (below) to illustrate the lessons of Instinctive Drowning Response.  This video, less than a minute long, should be shown to all scuba divers during training… and to swimmers whenever they take lessons.


Please pass this on…. make sure your friends and relatives understand the realities of drowning!

About the Author

andy davis technical diving philippines

Andy Davis is a RAID, PADI TecRec, ANDI, BSAC and SSI qualified independent technical diving instructor who specializes in teaching advanced sidemount, trimix and wreck exploration diving courses across South East Asia.  Currently residing in ‘wreck diving heaven’ at Subic Bay, Philippines, he has amassed more than 9000 open circuit and CCR dives over 27 years of diving across the globe.

Andy has published many magazine articles on technical diving, has written course materials for dive training agency syllabus, tests and reviews diving gear for major manufacturers and consults with the Philippines Underwater Archaeology Society.

He is currently writing a series of books to be published on advanced diving topics.  Prior to becoming a professional technical diving educator in 2006, Andy was a commissioned officer in the Royal Air Force and has served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Belize and Cyprus.

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