Drowning – the silent killer

Written by on February 15, 2021

Drowning is quick and silent. It’s not like you see in the movies. No yelling, no waving. Just a silent gasping for air and 20 to 60 seconds later, submersion, Someone has drowned, perhaps in plain sight. Following a week of fatal drowning across South Africa, the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) is urging the public to exercise caution when swimming or when children are playing in and around water. According to Statistics South Africa, fatal drowning is the 5th leading cause of unintentional death in the country with an estimated 600 children who die by drowning each year.

Many of these fatal drownings could be prevented if there was a responsible, able-bodied person watching the children when they are in or near water and if they were able to recognise the signs of drowning.

“When people are drowning, all of their energy is going into trying to breathe and staying above water,” says Andrew Ingram, Head of Drowning Prevention for the National Sea Rescue Institute. “They are not yelling for help or waving their hands around. Drowning is often quick, and very silent”.

Parents and caregivers are urged to be vigilant when their children are near water. Most drownings of children under five years of age are at, or near, their home. Special attention should be paid to washing basins, baths, dams, rivers and swimming pools. Small children should not be able to get close to these dangers alone without responsible adult supervision. Older children should also be reminded of the dangers that they face near water.

“The priority is to have somebody dedicated to physically watch those who are swimming, not distracted by their phone or conversations with others. Taking your eyes off children, even for a few seconds, could prove fatal”, added Andrew.

The NSRI has developed a “SWIMMING MONITOR” ID tag (see attached) to avoid confusion on who should be watching the children while they swim. “We encourage people to print it out, add a lanyard or tie it on a loop of string for the designated swimming monitor to wear it around their neck. The person who is “ON DUTY” should do nothing other than watch the children while they are in the water.

The tag should be passed to another responsible adult after half an hour to make sure that there is no lapse of concentration from the person who is “ON DUTY”. It is important that those supervising the children know who to call for help and how to do bystander CPR. The Swimming monitor tag has emergency numbers printed on the front; and on the reverse side are infographics on how to do Bystander CPR.

“Drowning can happen in seconds. A more widespread understanding of what signs of swimming distress and drowning behaviour actually look like would help to save lives” said Andrew.

7 warning signs that someone is drowning:


  1. Struggling to keep their face above the water in an effort to breathe – head is low in the water, tilted back, and mouth is at water level.
  2. Their body is in a vertical or upright position. No supportive kick, appearing as if they are bobbing.
  3. Has arms extended to the side pressing down for support.
  4. Might continue to struggle underwater, but isn’t making any headway, often facing the nearest point of safety, for example land, a person, shallow water, a buoyant support toy or a boat.
  5. Panicked or wide eyes – the eyes appear big, glassy and empty, unable to focus;
  6. Inability to respond to the question: “Are you okay?”
  7. Silence

 Here are a few tips from the NSRI’s Water Safety schools programme to keep children safe: 

  • Fast flowing rivers are a dangerous place for children to play near and should not be crossed.
  • Winter seas are unpredictable and dangerous. Do not play on wet sand or wet rocks.
  • When fishing from rocks, a life jacket should be worn.
  • Make sure that you, as the responsible adult, have a cell phone with a fully charged battery with you all the time.  In case of an emergency, call 112.
  • Save your local emergency numbers on your phone and make sure that your family members and children’s caregivers do the same.

Sea Rescue’s Water Safety Instructors prevent drowning tragedies through education.  They have taught almost 3 million children how to avoid dangers in or near water, what to do in an emergency, who to call for help, how to rescue a friend, and last but not least, how to do HandsOn CPR. The lesson is given at schools at no charge and during the lockdown, our instructors conduct virtual lessons.  Schools and creches are welcome to contact us if they would like us to teach in their area.

Active adult supervision and a knowledge of first aid, CPR and water safety will help prevent drowning accidents and save lives.

Prevention is key when it comes to water safety. You can help us save lives by donating to our survival swimming programme.

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