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"Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for is rarely seen in real life."
Mario Vittone, water survival expert
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In media, death by drowning is a horrible, protracted ordeal. The victim flails against the uncaring water and screams for help again and again. At times they slip below the surface but strength born of panic and desperation will bring them back up for air. Finally, all hope gone and their exhausted frame failing, they go down for the last time. They may even have a moment to say their Last Words or shed a Single Tear.

In reality, a drowning victim paddles quietly for a few moments and sinks. They are too busy struggling for air to yell or scream, nor can they control their arms enough to wave or signal for help. Instincts are running the show, and they're ineffectually flapping their arms against the water to push their mouth above the surface. An untrained onlooker may not even notice that anything's wrong. Professionals keep a watch for telltale signs like a swimmer bobbing low in the water who is unable to speak or respond when spoken to.

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The splashing-and-screaming reaction — "aquatic distress" — does happen, and is also not to be ignored, but it's rare, often occurs when fighting against strong currents, and almost never happens in a place like a pool. Kids in particular are noisy swimmers, and it's more worrying if they're quiet. This is especially true for very young children who still have a diving reflex: a small child who falls into water will simply hold their breath and sink. Toddlers have drowned in public pools with crowds of people around them.

If this is Played for Laughs, it likely takes the form of Stop Drowning and Stand Up. This quickly alleviates the victim's (imagined) helplessness in the face of (nonexistent) danger. Of course this also may be subverted, as in reality it is possible to drown in ankle-deep water.

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This article should be limited to aversions and egregious examples: tropers cannot be asked to tell if King Graham's drowning animation is realistic enough, unless the process is depicted in detail and gotten wrong.

See also Last Grasp at Life, Super Drowning Skills. Contrast Symbolic Serene Submersion, where the drowning person is completely calm.


Examples:

Aversions:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Case Closed: a woman seems to be drowning in the "flailing and bobbing" manner which everyone can see from across the beach and rescue her from. It turns out she wasn't drowning at all; she was faking to see if her fiancée would try and rescue her even though he couldn't swim (which her friend, the only one she told beforehand, takes as a chance to try to kill her without suspicion).
  • One Piece, surprisingly enough, doesn't do a half-bad job. The Super Drowning Skills that Devil fruits magically bestow on their eaters are given varied portrayals, from the standard panicky flailing (Luffy, Mr. 2) to the eater's limbs simply locking up as they silently bob under the water (Buggy).
  • Fushigi Yuugi:
    • Miaka very nearly drowns in an inexplicably deep pond at the palace of Konan... twice. The first time, she's been sent to retrieve an earring by Nuriko and got tangled in some water weeds. She knows Nuriko was just trying to get rid of her, but she also knows she needs Nuriko on her side, and gives Nuriko a pretty stone instead., and the second time, she gets distracted while Angsting over Tamahome. Both times, she is rescued, but neither time features her thrashing wildly at the surface or calling out for help.
    • In the 3rd OVA, Mayo realizes the gravity of what she's done and attempts to drown herself. Her survival instincts don't kick in, so she doesn't thrash or struggle either. She, too, is rescued, and helps Miaka to summon Suzaku once more to save the Universe of the Four Gods.
  • Defied in SPY×FAMILY: A child undergoing physical therapy falls into a pool when his guardians is looking away, sinks like a rock, and starts drowning in near silence. Anya only notices thanks to her Telepathy, which she passes off as seeing the air bubbles. Loid has to explain to the other adults how disturbingly quiet the whole process can be.
    Adult 1: How could this happen? We were right here!
    Adult 2: I didn't hear a thing!
    Loid: That's how it happens. When children drown, they barely make any sound at all. Even nearby adults often fail to hear anything. Please be careful not to take your eyes off them.

    Comic Books 
  • In one Archie Comics comic, Veronica wants to invoke a Rescue Romance with a cute fisherman she sees while she and Betty are canoeing down a river. She overturns the canoe and starts flailing and screaming for help, which gets the fisherman to dive in and save her. As he pulls Veronica to shore he calls for Betty to hold on while he comes for her, only for Betty to snarkily note that the river is only waist-deep and she can easily walk out of it.

    Comic Strips 
  • One Doonesbury comic has Mike and BD go on vacation to Fort Lauderdale. While at the pool, BD and a pretty girl watch Mike (who is underwater) and assume he's testing his stamina in holding his breath or practicing his underwater swimming. The last panel has Mike thinking, "Actually, what I'm really doing is drowning."

    Films — Animation 
  • In Rise of the Guardians, Jack Frost drops through thin ice and only flails for half a second, as the combination of freezing water and lack of air gets the better of him very quickly.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • At one point during The Inbetweeners movie, one of the foursome pushes a kid into a swimming pool. It occurs to the group that the kid might not be able to swim when they see him floating face down in the water.
  • In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Sam's near-drowning occurs without much flailing or noise. Frodo knows he's drowning because he knows Sam can't swim.
  • Titanic is an aversion. Rose nearly gets dragged under by another swimmer trying to use her as a flotation device, and most of the victims actually die of hypothermia rather than drowning (most were wearing life vests that kept their heads above water, even in death). A deleted scene shows a man who is quick-witted enough to use a crate as a raft to get himself mostly out of the water and survives until he is rescued by fifth officer Lowe's lifeboat as a result.
  • Kind of justified in the Slovak fairy film "Frau Holle". The evil stepmother and her daughter fall into a pitch pool note , and Death (she note  was the Butt-Monkey through the whole film and finally gets cut some slack) gleefully watches their predicament. A methane bubble comes up (at least that's the obvious scientific explanation) and they suddenly drown without even a proper death scream. Regardless how much Asshole Victim the two were in the film, imagine what a Nightmare Fuel the scene would have become for kids if they had splashed and screamed around.

    Literature 
  • In a short story by Bjorn Bjornsterne, called "The Father," a young man drowns after falling out of a boat. He struggles quietly for a few seconds, then rolls over on his back. As the body sinks to the ground and the bubbles stop rising his father realizes that his son has drowned.
  • Actually averted in the event that starts the main premise of On My Honor. Joel and Tony go to the river and decide to swim across it towards the middle, where there is a sandbar. Tony (who can't swim) dares Joel to race him. So they get in the water, and Joel can only hear the sound of splashing as he paddles forward. When he reaches the sand bar, Joel looks behind him, only he cannot see Tony anywhere. Tony had sunk below the river water without letting out a scream.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The A-Team, "Bullets and Bikinis". When Face performs his drowning act to get close to Epic's girlfriend, Denise, he does a lot of thrashing and yelling, "Help, I'm drowning!" This might be justified as it was faked in-universe; however, Denise, who's presumably been around water a lot, seems to fall for it.
  • Rescue 911:
    • "Twin Drowning": The mother realizes that something's wrong when she hears a conspicuous silence.
    • "Two-Year-Old Pool Save": The mother checks the pool the moment she notices her youngest child is missing, and finds it empty, but doesn't post a watch on it before searching the house.
    • "Texas Pool Tot": The mother turns her back to the pool for 20 seconds.
    • "Double Football Player": A man pulls a boy out of a whirlpool in a river, and once the kid is secure, the rescuer drowns and dies. An onlooker comments that she didn't see him give any sign of distress, and she didn't realize that anything was wrong until he started going under.
    • "Motel Toddler Plunge": It doesn't really count since the kid falls from a third-story window and may well have gone unconscious on impact.
    • For the record, a number of other segments are known to feature drowning, but have not been checked one way or the other: "Potomac River" (s2e11), "Regatta Rescue" (s3e11), "911 My Baby Drowned" (s3e27), "11-Year-Old CPR Save" (s4e6), "911 Nurse's Bathtub Baby" (s5e1), "911 Son in the Spa" (s5e25).

    Music 
  • "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy": "We heard a gurgling cry; a second later, the captain's helmet was all that floated by."

    Video Games 
  • In Photopia, a work-at-home mom hears a splash, and when she looks outside, her daughter is floating face down in the pool. The game notes the mother's restraint in taking the stairs five at a time instead of throwing herself down the staircase.
  • Subnautica: Running completely Out Of Oxygen underwater is deathly quiet: all sound fades, your vision dims to black, and you die seconds later. If you manage to reach air just before you expire, this is Zig-Zagged: your Player Character will gasp and sputter after narrowly avoiding death.
  • In Another World, if Lester gets swept down the waterfall, caught up in the Advancing Giant Wall of Watery Doom, or runs out of air during the swimming sequence, the game immediately displays a frighteningly realistic facial shot of him drowning.
  • In the Tomb Raider series, when drowning after exhausting her Oxygen Meter, Lara quietly convulses for a few seconds before going limp.

    Web Comics 
  • The Dragon Doctors: In a spiritual realm that's still real enough to do the job, the victim appears in an ocean without boundaries presided over by a drowning spirit. The chilly water completely saps her strength over the course of a handful of panels and she sinks beneath the waves.

    Western Animation 
  • BoJack Horseman: In the final season, Addled Addict BoJack gets drunk and topples into his swimming pool. He floats motionless and face-down, with no-one around to notice him. He barely survives; he leaves Diane a voicemail that she correctly interprets as a Prelude to Suicide and she calls emergency services.
  • In ThunderCats (2011), Lion-O drowns after falling into a river and being pinned under a boulder.

    Real Life 
  • Probably the greatest single danger for toddlers. It takes them just a moment unobserved to climb 5-foot pool ladders, fall in and drown. Even a puddle all of one inch deep can be enough. There was an education campaign on Australian TV to this effect, consisting of a still shot angled above/near a pool, bath or dam, an offscreen splash, and an on-screen timer showing exactly how short 20 seconds really is.
    20 seconds is all it takes for a toddler to drown. Never take your eyes off children around water.
  • Here's a good article talking about how real drowning differs from TV.
  • Drowning does not end after a person is rescued from the water. A drowning person may seem to be fully conscious, with their eyes lolling around and their mouth open; an untrained person might assume that now that they're safe, they're fine and breathing and will recover on their own. However, if they aren't actually coughing, they are unconscious and near death regardless of whether their eyes are open, and they require immediate life-saving intervention from a trained professional. Unless a lifeguard is available, they will likely suffer brain damage and/or die within the next few minutes.
    • The good news: something will still seem "off", even to untrained people. In the drowning state, subconscious facial expressions and lack of alertness will resemble the Uncanny Valley, which we are instinctively horrified by; it would take a completely innocent or oblivious person not to notice that something is wrong after a minute or so. The bad news: that might be too late. Hence the earlier emphasis on "immediate".

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    Comic Strips 
  • Peanuts: Peppermint Patty flunks an English test and describes and re-enacts a dramatic drowning in grammar, complete with going down three times (and sputtering commas).

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Addams Family Values: Campers are learning lifeguarding techniques. The Alpha Bitch, a "great actress", jumps in to pretend to drown with a display of worried shouts and flailing arms. Also an inversion, as when the Large Ham gets into genuine distress in the water, she just goes under without ceremony.
  • The Green Hornet really played up the loud flailing and splashing and even a roughly intelligible yell of "I can't swim". The drowner is saved with an inflatable lobster.

    Video Games 
  • Tak: The Great Juju Challenge: This is Lok's death animation when the guy puts more than 25% of his body in the water. This also counts as Super Drowning Skills due to the absurdity; his buddy Tak, who's not as strong as Lok is, can swim.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: When Link or an enemy drowns, they go under with a great deal of splashing, arm-flailing, and panicked splutters (Link), squeals (Bokoblins) or bellows (Moblins). This is particularly notable in Link's case, as he will keep swimming steadily and calmly until the moment where his stamina meter runs out, at which point he'll flail madly and sink like a stone.
  • Tomb Raider III, unlike elsewhere in the series, plays this trope straight if Lara falls into the rapids of Madubu Gorge in the South Pacific.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY Chibi showcased the hydrophobic Neptune Vasilias on lifeguard duty (he's covering for Sun). When Jaune slips and falls into the pool, Neptune just looks away with a Not-So-Innocent Whistle.
    Jaune: Help! *SPLASH* Someone! *SPLASH* I'm drowning! *SPLASH* I'm in the water and I'm drowning! *SPLASH* Right now! *SPLASH* Drowning! *SPLASH* I might die! *SPLASH* This could be it! *SPLASH* If only someone—! *SPLASH* Could jump in the water! *SPLASH* And save me! *SPLASH* This is it! *SPLASH* I see the light! *SPLASH* I'm going toward it! *SPLASH* So warm... bllargghh... glargh... glargh... [air bubble rises into the air and pops] Dead.

    Western Animation 
  • Looney Tunes: Common, particularly when Wile E. Coyote is drowning. Complete with the hand coming up with fingers enumerating "one... two... three..."
  • Alfred J. Kwak: Justified example occurs near the end of season 1, since the protagonist was just pretending to drown and attracting somebody's attention was the entire point.

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