What drowning really looks like

Drowning doesn't look like the images we have been shown.
Drowning doesn't look like the images we have been shown. Photo: Getty

There was one lucid thought that went through my mind as I began drowning in our local municipal pool last December; that it wasn't what I thought it would be.

What had started out as a fun birthday party for my five-year-old daughter's classmate turned to horror when my daughter (a fairly incompetent swimmer) jumped off the inflatable obstacle course into my arms as I tread water in the deep end of the pool. Holding her, I began to swim over towards the edge of the pool  less than three metres away and everything was fine - until my daughter began to panic and started climbing on top of my head and shoulders, pushing me down into the water before I'd had a chance to inhale. Initially I tried to pull her off so I could reposition her before continuing our swim, but her terror grip was deathlike and even though I'm a 30-something who can confidently swim a good ten laps of an Olympic pool without collapsing in a heap, I immediately began to go under.

For the next thirty seconds or so (although it felt like minutes), I bobbed vertically like a cork trying to lift my head above water to quickly exhale and inhale before I went under again. I couldn't yell, I couldn't kick or wave my arms. I was completely silent, only able to look out in fear at the rows of parents lined up along the side, watching us with big smiles on their faces. "I'm drowning!" I wanted to scream, but I couldn't utter a word. I could only exert enough energy to exhale and inhale quickly whenever my face lifted out of the water long enough to do so. I didn't even have the strength to pull at my daughter to get her off of me. 'So this is what drowning feels like', I remember thinking for the briefest of moments. 'God I hope they notice before my daughter goes under too'. The pool lifeguard was clearly not going to be that person however; he had his back to us the whole time.

Whether my daughter changed her grip or I found some strange superhuman strength, I'll never know but somehow the side of the pool brushed past my hand and I grabbed onto it, spluttering and gasping for air as the parents helped my daughter out of the water. "Why didn't you help me!?" I screamed at my friend, one of the parents who had watched the whole thing unfold. "I was drowning out there! What if that had been one of our children?" My friend looked shocked. "But, but..." she stammered. "You didn't look like you were drowning." And therein lies the problem.

If you look at Hollywood, drowning is depicted by much commotion. There's wild splashing, waving and yelling so the scenes are dramatic but the true nature of it is so very different. "When your child drowns, it's deathly silent and the water is almost still," says Jo-Ann Morris quietly. "There is no thrashing, there is no screaming." Unfortunately, she speaks from experience. In 2006, she found her then two-year-old son Samuel floating in their backyard pool, having falling in after pulling off a loose paling on their relatively new pool fence. Although Samuel survived, he was left severely brain damaged and after an eight-year battle, died last year.

"In that one moment we went from having a happy little boy to a child who couldn't eat, smile, talk or walk." Rather than give in to their grief after the accident, Jo-Ann - along with her husband Michael - started the Samuel Morris Foundation, an organisation which works to prevent child drownings and support non-fatal drowning survivors.

Their services are needed - between July 2013 and June 2014  alone, 20 children aged 0 - 4 and 10 children aged 5 to 15 drowned with 70% of these deaths occurring in swimming pools, with falls into the water accounting for the vast majority. It's worth noting that these figures are drowning deaths only and do not include brain injuries such as those suffered by young Samuel. Disturbingly, many such drownings have occurred right in front of supervising adults. "Because most of us are on the lookout for the thrashing arms and yelling we see in movies, we don't automatically recognise our children (or adults) are actually drowning in our presence until it's too late," says Morris.

These are the signs you need to look out for:

- Drowning people's mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. Initially, this may give them just enough time to exhale and inhale quickly before they sink beneath  the surface of the water again. A person who cannot breathe cannot speak so they will not have the time nor the ability to call out for help. With small children whose heads are top heavy, their faces will stay in the water from the time they fall in so you will have to work quickly.

  • Adults and older children who have had swimming lessons tend to remain vertical in the water, while younger children are more likely to be horizontal but this doesn't have to be the rule. "No two drownings are the same," says Morris. "Some kids may go underwater, some may stay at the top – it's different for everyone."
  • Physiologically, people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning long enough to perform voluntary arm movements such as waving for help. Throughout what is called the' Instinctive Drowning Response', adults and older children will instinctively extend their arms laterally and press down on the surface of the water so they can lift their mouths out of the water long enough to breath. Small children do not have this ability.
  • Adults and older children will look as though they are climbing an invisible ladder – often with their head tilted back. They may have a glazed or panicked expression on their face.
  • Children aged 0 - 2 (and possibly older) will remain with their face in the water with little to no movement in their arms and legs.
  • Those who are drowning may also not be able to grab any lifesaving equipment thrown to them.

Or course, while recognising the signs of drowning is important, preventing it from occurring in the first place is even better. To help you protect your family (and others), Morris offers the following tips:

  • Supervise your children adequately around any water source. it's not enough to sit by the pool on your phone while your child plays two metres away because while you think they're playing, they could be drowning right in front of you. Get in the pool with them and be within arm's reach at all times.
  • We all know in and above-ground pools need to be fenced, but so do small inflatable pools, clam shells and anything else with a depth of 30cm. Children can drown in as little as 3cm of water so you can never be too careful.
  • Do a pool safety check. The checklist can be found at royallifesaving.com.au.
  • Consider the type of furniture you have around your pool. Most outdoor furniture is lightweight and can easily be dragged over to the pool fence for quick access. Clear the area of such furniture and anything else your little ones can use to get a leg over such as pot plants.
  • When a pool is not in use, don't leave any enticing pool toys around the pool area. You don't want to give them any encouragement.
  • Make sure your kids learn to swim without relying on floaties and goggles. This way, if they fall into the pool without them, the water won't seem as foreign.
  • If you see someone who seems fairly stationary, panicked, or perhaps even flailing about, stop and ask them whether they're okay. If they can answer, they're probably fine, but if they can only return a blank stare, get over to them as quickly as possible and call for help.
  • Remember children make noise when they're swimming in water. If everything goes quiet, it needs to be investigated quickly.
  • Lastly, learn CPR. It only takes one minute for a child to drown, but if you're by their side to act quickly, it can make all the difference.