You know how eating salty food makes you feel thirsty? Understanding why you should never drink water from the ocean or sea, especially in survival situations, is easy when you keep this scenario in mind.
Sea water, ocean water, and salty food are all similar because they have high concentrations of salt. Although the human body does need some salt in order to stay healthy, too much is dangerous for you. When you ingest high levels of salt, by drinking seawater or eating salty food, your body tries to expel what salt it doesn’t need so that it can keep you healthy.
Most of the time, this is no problem. Your body’s way of flushing out toxins and correcting the imbalances in your system is through expelling these excesses in your urine. In order to get rid of more toxins or excesses, all your body needs is more water. The sensation of thirst is your body’s way of telling you it needs that water. Of course, sitting at home eating a bag of chips, this is easy to fix: fill a glass and drink, and you’ll be good to go. But when you’re lost in the middle of the wilderness where suitable water is hard to come by, becoming too thirsty can ultimately mean dehydration.
When you drink salty water, from the sea or the ocean, you’re putting both salt and water into your system. The problem is that the amount of water you take in is nowhere near the amount you’ll need to expel the salt, and if you keep drinking the seawater, you’ll keep adding to the amount of salt you need to get out of your body. When you drink water from the sea or ocean, your body needs more water to get rid of the salt than it’s getting out of the seawater itself. Essentially, when you drink seawater, you’re dehydrating yourself.
That’s why after drinking seawater, you’ll become more thirsty than you were before: because you’re causing your body to need even more water than before you drank the saltwater.
To sustainably drink water from the ocean or sea, you’ll need to get rid of all that salt first. While this is possible to do, it’s not a particularly easy task, especially in survival situations.
All this to say, do not drink seawater as it stands. It will always make you worse off than if you had never drank it at all. Drinking seawater when you’re dying of thirst will only make you die of thirst faster.
P.S.: If you’re thinking you can drink just a little seawater at a time to keep yourself from becoming dehydrated, and you’re basing this on your discovery of Alain Bombard and his writings, please take the time to read my follow-up article to this post: “Can I Drink Small Amounts of Seawater in Survival Situations?”
I have a question, what about these filters such as, “Lifestraw”, would they filter out the salt and if so would it significantly shorten the life of the filter?
Which reminds me, how do you know when those filters have been used up? I don’t see anything on them to tell you how many gallons have travelled through the filter or some sort of color graphic that changes color when approaching end of life of the filter.
Bob Ocean says
Hi, well, after reading Alain Bombard’s book yet again, I firmly believe that He did not have anything whatsoever to gain by doing this experiment, unless He was suicidal. ( failed)
For those who do not travel at Sea, I can assure you, it does not often rain at Sea, as Land is generally required to get cloud to drop it’s moisture.
When it does rain, due to various factors- boat rolling around +salt water contamination + unable to put up functional rain catcher in wind, it is not particularly successful.
Arguably, more water is caught from condensation on sails (a funnel at goose neck of boom is effective) + dodgers + rigging and simply wiping moisture up from ANY surface and squeezing cloth into container.
Australian Aboriginals used to wrap dry grass around legs and gather moisture by walking around through damp scrub/grass.
We just assume they will be available when required.
Remember the 6 x “P’s”
” Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance”
In a Survival Situation, water is simply NOT always available in the form, we have come to recognize it in.
“Adapt or Die”
Elise Xavier says
Are you kidding me? 1. You’re assuming he was telling the entire truth about his journey, and 2. His assertions made him famous…
A quote from the British Medical Journal (May 1, 1954):
SIR,-The crossing of the Atlantic by Dr. Alain Bombard
on a rubber raft, and his subsequent claims regarding survival
methods, have caused much discussion. In particular,
his views on drinking sea-water have been widely disseminated,
and his heterodox opinions have caused some
alarm among those who have responsibilities in advising on
survival policy. Dr. Bombard will soon return to this
country to give a second series of public lectures, in which
no doubt he will reaffirm his belief that sea-water should
be drunk by castaways. There has as yet been no public
denial of Bombard’s claims, and this might suggest that his
theories have been accepted. Nothing could be further
from the truth, and it seems appropriate to say again that
the bulk of experimental evidence has shown- that sea-water
drinking must do castaways more harm than good.
Criticism of Bombard’s physiological notions is often misunderstood
as criticism of his achievement. His courage
and determination have never been in doubt, and the difficulties
he has overcome in his attempts to prove that man
can exist for a long period of time at sea are indeed formidable.
However, it is not upon psychological issues alone
that survival at sea depends. In addition to many other
factors, the concentrating power of the kidney, which has
a known physiological limit, plays no small part in regulating
the conservation of body water. Bombard’s advice to
drink sea-water is not backed by any acceptable evidence
which would show that our present concepts of renal function
are inaccurate, and Bombard’s own evidence is unsatisfactory
Bombard is wrong when he supposes that traditional
advice is based upon the fact that sea-water could not be
drunk. The advice given against sea-water drinking depends
upon the fact that it should not be drunk. The fact is
that at the present moment the experimental evidence shows
quite clearly that it is possible to drink sea-water but never
to advantage. Those who are cast away at sea who do
not drink sea-water and wait for the rain that saved
Bombard will be more certain to survive than those who do
drink sea-water, provided they are equally courageous.-
T. C. MACDONALD,
Director of Hygiene and Research,
London. W.C.2. Air Ministry.”
Link to source in full: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2084985/pdf/brmedj03388-0057b.pdf
I’m sorry, but this isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of science and fact. And if one man stumbled upon a discovery this big, and it were true it would’ve changed the entire path of history. If you’re telling me that major corporations who are now investing huge dollars into desalination projects are being silly because they didn’t try Alain Bombard’s method of just having a little bit of water at a time and having it before you’re too dehydrated, you’re putting way too much faith in one man. If you want to test out his theories yourself, go ahead, but try them at home in a place where you can run to freshwater and save yourself once you’re done testing. But please don’t help perpetuate myths on the internet that can actually get people killed for having listened to them. We’re talking about survival here – this isn’t a game, and one man’s “findings” are not science, nor should they be taken as such.
It isn’t adapt or die when it comes to drinking seawater.. we can’t force our bodies to take seawater and make good use of it. We physically cannot drink seawater without becoming more dehydrated. It’s a fact. And I’m sorry but if you cannot see that Bombard most likely took freshwater with him on his journey and only “fudged his results”/outright lied about his “findings” for the fame, I’m not sure if there’s point in even continuing this conversation.
Tell the millions of people dying from a lack of freshwater that they should just get rehydrated then go drink small bits of seawater to keep them alive for the rest of their lives.
Bob Ocean says
Hi Elize, this is obviously becoming a topic that you feel strongly about. Fair enough. Me too.
Alain Bombard departed on His journey in Public, NOT in secret, i.e. with people watching.
In a “Rubber Raft”. How big do you think this raft was?
4.65 meters, bow to sterns, with very little space inside. It was in fact a “Zodiac” Inflatable Dinghy.
Where did He stash His “Secret Supply” of water while departing on this controversial trip?
Water cannot be compressed nor dehydrated (defeats the purpose somewhat).
He was setting out to prove/disprove HIS theories for the benefit of OTHERS, not Himself…
As to your comments about Governments spending millions of Dollars, building Salt Water Desalination Plants, and as to why would they bother, if people can drink S.W.?
Fact, 98% of water delivered to Households, is NOT being drunk.. It is used for washing, showering, cooking, cleaning and generally wasted !
I am NOT stating Humans can thrive on SW.
Merely attempting to discuss on options available in a “SURVIVAL situation.” This is a survival website isn’t it?
As someone who “Lives the dream” every day, and has lived on/near the water most of my life, I like to think I’m open minded on this subject and keen to learn from other peoples experiences.
Admittedly, I was shocked as a kid, the first time I saw a Fisherman drinking SW. When I asked him why? He replied that “There is plenty available and tastes good” Well, of course I tried it, and He was correct in both cases. Sometimes I even prefer the taste over fresh water (shock/horror) and it gets salt into my system.
Something that is NOT always available and required when living/operating in the tropics.
Salt was a VERY precious commodity in our History and even now, Humans and Animals go to great lengths to access it.
In finishing my spiel, I will sum up with yet again, read the book if you are interested in the subject and draw your own conclusions.
Also any other books Authored by “People who have survived very long periods in a life raft/dinghy” We can learn from their experiences.
Regards, and thanks for hosting a great Site.
Bob, on the Ocean
Bob Ocean says
Hi, Devils advocate here.
Knocking 60 yrs young. Sailing/kayaking 55yrs. Disgustingly good health. Selective Vegetarian. (sometimes carnivore)
I drink CLEAN saltwater everyday, where available.
Check up mineral composition of S.W. and compare to human blood. Pretty much very similar.
No, I’m not a Doctor, however Alain Bombard was. “The Bombard Story” He set out His experiment which was to enable survival of castaways. I will take the liberty of a unauthorised quote. page 25.
“Every one knows that sea water is dangerous. Consumed in large quantities it causes death by nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys). What then, is to be done? The answer lies in a study of the composition of water. The most important consistent is sodium chloride, or common salt. I therefore made up my mind that I would consume the permissible daily intake of salt by swallowing sea water. This meant that I could drink about a pint and a half of s.w a day. The chief thing that I had to worry about was the Malpighian corpuscles. These form the first filter in the kidneys and have to work the hardest when there is a abnormal concentration of mineral salts. The question was how long the corpuscles could continue to work without damage. as far as I could make out, this was about five days, After which the danger of nephritis became acute.”
(Alain Bombard went on to create Bombard inflatable dinghy Company.) Now owned by Zodiac.
Fascinating book to read if you can get it.
He put His life on the line to “prove His theory”
(also “Adrift” by Steven Callahan. 76 days @sea.0 is worth a read.
The problem “seems to be” that people in a survival situation, “WAIT until too late” before up taking S.W. it then becomes too much for the kidneys to assimilate as the blood is already overloaded/toxic. As a retired Australian Military Person, I was ALWAYS taught, “drink available water first 24/48 hours” OTHERWISE your body will become “Dangerously dehydrated” ie. “5%” that figure is NOT a misprint.. If you are dehydrated, you are not capable of moving efficiently NOR can make RATIONAL/SAFE decisions. If you are “open minded” consider this,
Several surviving castaways recommend uptaking unpalatable fluids ( bird blood etc) by inserting it into the rectum via a tube.
As an aside, “water” (fluid) can be obtained from fish by squeezing the flesh with a alloy “orange Squeezer”)
This would get person past the gag response. Bear in mind that this was a common method of getting Medications into the body and still is a method used via suppositories to deliver Anti sea sickness Meds. Been here with crew !
Believe me, when seasick, you first think
” I’m going to die, THEN you wish you could die”
When sick, the person is continually vomiting, (loosing fluids!) which will of course remove Meds. taken orally.
DEHYDRATION is the #1 problem when Seasick.
Also, Alain used “fine silk fabric” (read pantyhose) to catch plankton and eat it. Very high in protein, BUT also requires water to assimilate, as do ALL foods ingested.
So, WATER IS THE MOST NECESSARY ELEMENT FOR SURVIVAL here, arguably followed by shelter.
We can argue that statement till the cows come home.. (Kiwi expression)
Due Diligence. My comments are for intelligent consideration ONLY, not to be taken as written in stone !
Yes it is a fascinating book and an equally fascinating experience! Bombard is my hero and I find that he merits far more attention the what he actually gets. I’ve done some questionning around, the number of people, even among sailors, who know about Bombard is so low it’s shocking.
Elise Xavier says
On the topic of Alain Bombard, I really don’t give much credit to his work. Unfortunately, while it’d be wonderful for his claims to be true, the scientific community couldn’t replicate his findings (not for lack of trying!), so it seems to me that it’s much more likely he fudged his results and was using rain water or other fresh water on his journey and merely pretending he did not drink anything besides seawater to become famous.
Sad, but most likely true. To read more about why I think this is true of his claims check out this article: http://morethanjustsurviving.com/drinking-seawater-for-survival/
Dehydration is certainly the #1 problem when seasick. It actually sounds like quite a horrifying way to go. But I definitely wouldn’t drink small amounts of seawater even if I was about to become dehydrated. I’m pretty convinced (as seems to be the entirety of the scientific community) that it’ll just speed up the process of dehydration – no matter how little seawater you take.
The only exception: the Baltic Sea
“The open surface waters of the central basin have salinity of 0.5% to 0.8%, which makes the basin border-line or, nearly Freshwater. Drinking the water as a means of survival would actually hydrate the body instead of dehydrating, like that of ocean water.”
I think you should read about Alain Bombard in his book “A voluntary shipwreck “.
M. Bombard crossed the ocean in 1953 on an inflatable dinghy without food or fresh water supplies in order to proof to mankind that the sea provides all a castaway needs for weeks and even months.
During two and a half months he lived from what nature provided and drank sea water for a week because no other water (captured from rain etc.) was available.
Elise Xavier says
I actually wrote an article related to Alain Bombard’s voyage here: http://morethanjustsurviving.com/drinking-seawater-for-survival/
While I acknowledge Bombard did claim to have made the trip without any resources, I am very skeptical about his story. Unless it’s been replicated, I see no reason to believe that he actually did manage for over a week without rainwater – and that hasn’t been scientifically replicated. Yes, there’s a small possibility that his story may be true and completely unembellished, but I wouldn’t chance my survival on what hasn’t been proved or replicated scientifically.
Well no, of course, there is no reason whatsoever to believe.
But as scientific proof nowadays, especially in the medical field, more often than not merely consists of proving the previous proof being wrong, we won’t get anywhere if we don’t use our own brain.
Bombard did cross the ocean with neither food nor water supplies. Two months. That is a fact.
That fact in itself is quite an achievement and enough to encourage any castaway to keep spirits high. I think everybody should read his book, the marvellous story of a brave and honest man who risked his life in order to save the life of others.
Now, whether or not he drank seawater solely for x days, that is a point that may need clarification. But we may ask, why was it never clarified to a point of general consensus? Bombard wrote his book 61 years ago. That is an eternity nowadays.
So where is the clarification, who studied the subject? Where are the results, clearcut?
There are no clearcut results and there will never be.
Because the outcome of a study depends on so many factors that are not taken into consideration, to begin with the intimate personal convictions of the researcher.
Elise Xavier says
Certainly, I agree that not enough has been done in terms of scientific investigation on this topic. We don’t even need to be out on the ocean to test his theories, a definitive series of lab tests could easily test out Bombard’s theories. I doubt there’s much money in this kind of research, however, which is likely why it hasn’t been done, but of course I personally believe it would be greatly beneficial to the world at large if it as found out. That being said, since no one’s done in-depth research on it yet, I doubt any kind of research will be done going forward… Really big shame, for sure!
There could be clear cut results, is what I’m trying to say. But no one bothers, so we’d have to trust our “lives” in the hands of the suggestions of one man. I would never risk drinking ocean water, no matter his results. I think if I was on my last strand in terms of dehydration, I’d rather wait for rainwater than have teensy bits of ocean water, that, if you consider everything science so far tells us, would only further dehydrate me. What happens if that ocean water did dehydrate me further, and was the cause of me just barely missing the rainfall I needed? I’d be more worried about that.