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August 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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How Good Are You at Knowing if a Diver Is Drowning?

from the August, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

As we've reported in past stories about drowning divers, people within a few meters of the victim often have no idea it is happening. The most recent unfortunate example came to us in a letter by Undercurrent subscriber Bob Latif (London, England), who was on a Sardine Run dive in Port St. Johns, South Africa, last month when a young Korean diver was lost, presumed drowned, while diving from a boat close to his.

"From what I understand, she was relatively inexperienced. I was told she jumped into the water and immediately lost a fin, which was recovered by another diver and passed to her. She was also holding a camera. I presume she neglected to inflate her BC and panicked, failing to drop her camera or the fin to recover her position."

Latif says this incident happened on a day with minimal underwater visibility and a 16-foot swell, and his own divemaster had decided to call the dive due to the rough conditions. But even on a calm day with little swell or currents, it's easy to overlook what a diver in distress looks like at the surface. There is little splashing, and no waving, yelling or calling for help. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is a secondary or overlaid function -- a person must breath before he or she can speak.

That's why you need to know the visual signs of a diver in distress. The mouths of drowning people alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water, and are not above the surface long enough for the victims to call for help. When their mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly before sinking below the surface. A diver at the surface without a regulator in place may be in trouble.

Also, drowning divers and snorkelers cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water's surface, which helps drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.

Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., a public safety consultant who has done research and training on ways to rescue people in trouble in the water, coined the term "instinctive drowning response" to describe what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. In an article he wrote for the Coast Guard's On Scene magazine, Pia described it like this: "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.

"From beginning to end of the instinctive drowning response, the bodies of drowning people remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs."

Former helicopter rescue swimmer Mario Vittone lists these visual cues to detect whether a diver or snorkeler is in distress.

* Head tilted back with mouth open

* Head low in the water, with mouth at water level

* Eyes closed, or glassy and empty, unable to focus

* Hair over forehead or eyes

* Not using their legs

* Hyperventilating or gasping

* Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway

* Trying to roll over onto their back

* Appearance of trying to climb an invisible ladder

So if a fellow diver is at the surface, distracted and intent on sorting out some problem with his gear, don't assume he is OK. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that she doesn't look as if she is drowning. She may just look as if she is treading water and staring up at the deck. One way to be sure is to ask, "Are you alright?" If she can answer at all, she is probably OK. If she returns a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to her.

So keep an ear out for any noise divers make in the water. But also be mindful when it gets too quiet -- if a diver is silent, you need to quickly find out why.

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