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Bodies Missing in Water

Bodies in Water


In General

Understanding what happens to ‘bodies in water’ is not an exact science; the variables in every case are immense. However there are some general ‘rules of thumb’, which have been learned and observed by those who have worked in this field for many years. 


When someone goes into the water, whether accidentally or intentionally, it is impossible to say how long he or she will stay afloat before drowning. Factors such as clothing, injury, swimming ability, water temperatures etc. all play an important part in the eventual outcome. 


When someone drowns, it is generally thought that the gasses in the body become compressed, causing the body to sink. 


Decomposition then sets in. After some time, gases accumulate within the body and it starts to rise to the surface again. Once on the surface, gases will eventually leave the body and it will once again sink. (It is difficult to put a time scale to this, as much depends on surface temperature). It is unusual for the body to re surface again for a second time. 



It would appear that bodies in rivers have a tendency to get pushed to the sides. 

In slow flowing waters, bodies can become trapped in deep pools and ‘backwaters’, (areas of water which flows up stream, usually near river banks). However, given time, it is usual for them to eventually get pushed out of these areas. Large rocks and sunken trees will often catch and hold bodies mid stream. 


If someone arrives quickly enough at the scene, they stand a good chance of finding the person/body at or very near the point of entry. If the point of entry is known, there is a high probability that the body will remain on that side of the river for at least the first two bends downstream. Beyond that, it could end up either side of the river. 


In a river flowing at between 1.5 and 3 knots, a body will move down stream. Anything less and the body should remain in position. However, even in fast flowing rivers, there is a good chance that the body will remain near the point of entry, provided it does not get onto the rivers ‘main flow’. 


Gauging speed of river

To gauge the speed at which water is flowing in the ‘main stream’ of a river, throw a stick into the water, and walk down the riverbank, keeping pace with the stick. A smart walking speed equates to approximately 3 knots. 


Interestingly, even in fairly fast flowing rivers, it takes very little to stop a body flowing with the current. Even as little as the bodies fingertips trailing on a stony riverbed, can halt its progress down stream. 

In conditions of less than 1.5 knots, searchers should initially concentrate their efforts in an area between 100 and 150 meters down stream from the known point of entry, particularly if there is a deep pool or area of ‘backwater’, within the search area. 


Search Boundaries

When searching a river, the search boundaries tend to be the riverbanks. During the initial stages of a search, (particularly before any ‘underwater search’ / ‘specialist units’ arrive at scene), searchers should use the riverbanks as search platforms. (Health and Safety issues must be given due consideration). 


Very often it is difficult and at times impossible to search the riverbank you are walking on because of overhangs or dense undergrowth. Searchers should be placed on both riverbanks and be told to spend as much time searching the opposite bank as they do searching the bank they are standing on. The person on the opposite bank often has a better chance of seeing a body hung up on vegetation or tree roots than the person actually searching that bank. 


It is always worth sending people quickly down stream to overlook the river from any vantage point, such as bridges. This might give them the opportunity to spot the body being carried by the current. Shingle banks and shallow areas of water, down stream from the point of entry, should be given close attention as being potential catchment areas for the body. If the river has a clear flow to the sea, generally speaking a body will go straight out to sea, particularly in the lower reaches of the river. 


When do bodies come to the surface

It is very difficult to put an exact time scale on bodies returning to the surface. Variations can occur due to the clothing worn, food in body or if the body has been weighted down.

It has been found that it can take about 28 days, give or take one or two days, for the gases within the body to overcome its own weight and for it to rise to the surface. 


Whether the body is in salt water or fresh water, seems to make little or no difference to the time it takes for the body to come to the surface. 

If and when a body does come to the surface, it can be moved by the wind. Provided the wind speed and direction are similar to when the body surfaced, it is possible to work out where it may have pushed the body. 



This tip has been used with some success but is only a general guide to predicting where a body on the surface of the water might go. Partially fill a lemonade bottle with water, and then place it in the water near the body’s last known position, or at the point where it was thought the body first entered the water. The wind will have a similar effect on the bottle as it would have had on the body. 


Bodies under water: 

Particularly large areas of still water. Trained ‘Cadaver dogs’, (and pigs), have been known to air scent water from boats, and pinpoint bodies underwater by locating the gasses coming to the surface from the body. 

There are U.K. dogs trained in this skill. Their assistance can be sought through the National Police Improvement Agency. 


It is always worth speaking to local fishing gillies. They have a wealth of knowledge about the river. They can tell you where things turn up if they go into the water at a certain point, if there are any known pools, which can hold items for a period of time or about any large hidden overhangs on the riverbank. 


Bodies missing in the sea

It is very difficult to predict what might happen to bodies that end up in the sea. There are so many variations in tides and currents. It is always best to consult the experts. Local fishermen, Local Marine Rescue, Coastguard etc. 


For example, if a body were lost from a boat half a mile
off shore, you would have to ask to see the ‘Almanac’ for undercurrents (available from local Coastguard). These currents are usually between 1 and 3 knots. You will also need to know which tide is prevailing. Using this information, provided you have an exact time date and locus for the body entering the water, you can begin to predict which direction the body might travel. 


For a body entering the sea from onshore, it is more difficult to predict direction of travel. A body, which comes off a sea cliff etc., is likely to wash in and out with the tide and wind. 


Rivers, which have a clear flow out to sea, can carry bodies out into strong sea currents, which in turn can carry it great distances. If the river mouth is heavily silted, there is a possibility the body will become hung up on one of the silt banks. 


The position of a body, which goes into a harbour, is very dependent on local tides, shipping movements and whether or not a river flows through the harbour. It is vital to consult with local Harbour Masters, fishermen and sailors, who all have a good knowledge of where items dropped into the harbour usually turn up.