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An image from a video of a child drowning on a crowded beach.
An image from a video of a child drowning on a crowded beach.

Do you know what drowning actually looks like? (Definitely not like the movies) Add to ...

A blog post on Slate.com about the fact that most people don’t know what a drowning person looks like has struck a chord and become the website’s most liked story ever.

The post, written by a drowning and sea survival expert named Mario Vittone and originally posted on his personal blog, describes in chilling detail how a person – even your own child – can be just a few feet away from you in the water and you may never realize how close to death they are.

“The Instinctive Drowning Response … is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving and no yelling or calls for help of any kind,” writes Vittone.

The most critical thing to know is that a person who is drowning cannot cry out for help, says Vittone. The victim will be trying too hard just to gasp in air, and the speech function will be shut down in favour of the respiratory system.

As well, a drowning person will be relatively still, their mouths sinking below the surface and reappearing as they try to keep their breathing going. Their arms will instinctively push down on the water to try to keep their mouths clear; they won’t be able to wave for help or even swim to a life buoy.

Most horrifyingly, a person who is drowning “can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs,” according to Francesco Pia, the scientist who developed the theory of the Instinctive Drowning Response.

Vittone’s blog entry includes a video captured by Pia of a boy drowning off a crowded U.S. beach.

The boy, who is rescued by a lifeguard at the last moment, acts exactly as Pia describes, his mouth bobbing in about out of the water as he helplessly pushes against the surface to stay alive. There are adults within a few metres of him who never notice what is happening.

“If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that’s all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew know what to look for whenever people enter the water,” Vittone writes.

People obviously agree. The Slate version of the story, posted Tuesday, had been liked more than 258,000 times on Facebook by Wednesday morning.

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