Dozens of South Carolinians will die by drowning this year. 

In pools, lakes, rivers and the ocean. Young and old. Black and white.

The circumstances differ in each case. But experts agree many drowning victims share something in common: Rarely do they resemble the thrashing, panicked swimmers depicted in popular films. 

In fact, drownings are often silent, said Rob Edgerton, a Charleston County EMS paramedic who helps train the county's lifeguards. 

"More often than not, people slip slowly below the surface, never to be seen again," Edgerton said. "It can go easily unnoticed."

That's why lifeguards are trained to scan bodies of water constantly, he said. 

"An active drowning victim can become a passive, unresponsive drowning victim in as little as 20 seconds," Edgerton said. "It happens very, very fast."

Data published by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control shows that 72 people died by drowning in this state in 2016.

Since 1999, the highest number of drowning deaths was recorded in 2009, when 90 people in South Carolina died. 

Nearly one-quarter of all drowning victims who died from 1999 to 2016 were children younger than 18. 

Drowning victims can be difficult for the untrained eye to identify, Edgerton said. 

"When you watch a person that’s drowning — they look like they’re climbing a ladder," he said. "They’re making ineffective movements to get out of water."

Often, they make no noise. They may try to scream underwater, he said, but above water, their survival instinct forces their body and brain to focus on inhaling air, not screaming. 

Swimming in the presence of lifeguards, wearing a flotation device and remaining in shallow water are all known to mitigate drowning risk, he said. 

Drinking alcohol and swimming in unsafe conditions, such as a storm or a strong current, increases the risk of drowning. 

If you see a person who appears to be drowning, call 911. If you are not able to safely reach the swimmer in open water, do not attempt to rescue him if you have not been trained, Edgerton warned.

If you can safely reach the swimmer, focus on keeping his head above water and his body afloat until emergency responders arrive. 

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.