Claire Leunissen

All in a (Lifeguard’s) Day’s Work: An Ethnographic Experiment


            Ten years of my life have been dedicated to supervising pools. At 11 years old, my mother registered me for the first course of the Lifesaving Society’s Bronze series, a prerequisite to become a lifeguard. A week after my 16th birthday, I completed a National Lifeguarding Service crash course and got my NLS. I’ve worked at 7 different pools, for 3 different employers, over 6 years. For 2 years, I was a competitive lifeguard with the University of Ottawa, traveling Ontario to compete in simulated emergency response situations. I reflexively shout at kids not to run on the deck while visiting other pools. I’ve guarded the lives of a thousand (or thousands?) of people and taught hundreds of children how to swim. Scanning the surface of the water for signs of distress, multicolored wrist bands and medic alert bracelets, is engrained into my occipital lobe – the part of the brain responsible for vision and hearing. Being a lifeguard is embedded into the very fabric of my being; it’s part of who I am. Therefore, it seems fitting to dedicate this assignment of experimental ethnographies, one of my last assignments in my last semester of my bachelor’s degree, to the trade of lifeguarding.

            The job of a lifeguard, much like an anthropologist, depends on observation. Lifeguards have to rhythmically scan the surface of the water back and forth in less than 30 seconds (LSS, 1993, p.87). This opportunity to be in an environment where I’m already observing and blend into my surroundings was ideal to conduct these ethnographic experiments. As such, my first ethnographic experiment can be characterized as sensory ethnography, that is, a type of ethnographic writing style that highlights a lifeguard’s sensorial experiences. This first ethnographic excerpt was easy to write because one’s senses are overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings while at the pool. In fact, there’s so much more that I could have included, such as the feeling of getting one foot wet, but not the other, and how the skins get cold as it dries; counting the number of aquatic animals of ocean mural painted onto the wall; and the ungodly squeaking/screeching noise that the door makes as lifeguards walk on and off the deck.

The second ethnographic experiment was more difficult to write because it felt like I was removing myself from the pool environment; writing about the lifeguarding experience from outside of the pool instead of inside the pool. The first ethnographic experiment offers the individual perspective of the lifeguard, while the second ethnographic experiment takes a more institutional perspective on the ethnographic object of lifeguarding. I believe that the latter’s approach to describing observations reflects a more traditional approach to anthropological writing. That being said, the sensory ethnography compliments the institutional and historical style. Although the second ethnographic experiment does a better job of contextualizing the history of lifeguarding and the rigorous training that equips lifeguards, it denies readers the same feeling of being there that sensory ethnography provides. Together, readers have the background knowledge to contextualize the sensory observations made by lifeguards who go through years of training, scanning, and first aid practice, to be able to register so much detail.


Ethnographic Experiment #1

               1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. I scan the surface of the water: there are 7 patrons in the pool right now. Splash! A ten-year-old boy kicks cross the pool on his mat. He’s encouraged by his father and grandfather who cheer him to “kick, kick, kick.”  As the water subsides and the cheering stops, the radio playing from the speakers is now audible again. The song “Wild Thoughts,” by DJ Khaled ft. Rihanna, hums across the relatively quiet day at the pool. “Wild, wild, wild… wild, wild, wild… when I’m with you, all I get is wild thoughts.” A baby squeaks with laughter as her dad pulls a cord and the baby-boat in which she’s floating zooms across the water. She squeaks again in her pink bathing suit, this time also clapping her hands. She sees me and smiles. I wave back and say “allô!” We wave at each other back and forth, back and forth, back and forth… Splash! The boy falls off his mat and into the water. His dad scoops him up and says “See, that’s why the lifeguard told you not to stand on the mat!” Meanwhile, the grandpa fans himself with his hand. The heat of the pool is heavy and humid. It weighs my chest down like a thick, damp, wool blanket. One of the regulars asks with a smile how I’m doing. “Good,” I respond. We chat about the weather and hockey. “The Sens beat themselves last night” he tells me. “I have the perfect coach speech for them: ‘How long have you been playing this game? Since you were 5 or 6 years-old? Ahh. So, what are you doing here? If this is what you want to do with your life, then what’s your purpose? Think about it.’” I nod in agreement.

            [Off rotation]

            1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. There are more people out now. Makes sense, it’s a dreary day outside; frozen rain and -5°C. The smell of chlorine floods my nostrils as I tug the lane ropes off the wall and toss them over the kids slide. Ratatatatatatatat. The plastic buoys roll across the tiled deck. Careful not to pull too hard and send my co-worker into the pool, I carry the lane ropes across the width of the pool. Lane rope number one hooks in; that was easy. Lane rope number two also hooks in. Hmm, it’s not usually that easy. Patrons swim counter clockwise in their lanes. An elderly woman swims backcrawl in lane two. Her head bobs up and down with each stroke. Not to worry, her swimming ability (although ineffective) is strong enough to swim lengths. My eyes sweep over to a gentleman in the leisure lane. A foam noodle affixed under his armpits, he bicycles kicks vertically back and forth. My attention is drawn to a regular who digs his right arm into the water too early with stroke. We call that “shoveling.” I give him the stroke correction and encourage him to reach father. On the other side of the pool, a younger gentleman with a long, full, thick black beard does flips off the rope. He somehow manages to control his rotations, freezing midair and slowly steering his head first into the water as he completes the rotation. Maybe a former gymnast? Looks like a great workout. Ploosh. A patron swims in front of me with sloppy arms; he splashes warm water onto my right foot. It’s only warm momentarily. Suddenly I’m aware of the temperature difference on the rest of my foot. I mouth the words to Coldplay’s “I want something just like this…” It’s a good way to pass the time.

            [Off rotation]

            1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 5, 4, 3, 2… 2… wait, what? Why am I off? Oh, I miscounted the patrons in the corner. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. That’s better. I rove around the pool, sweeping my eyes up and down the length of the water’s surface. The water level is higher today due to chlorine issues. As patrons swim by, water shoots up the holes of the water returns like geysers. Splash, splash, splash, goes the patron. Plop, plop, plop, goes the deck geyser. An old an is “swimming” but without the use of his legs. His arms doggy paddle at the surface, his head rests above the water. Weird how some people swim like that. I scan the pool, counting up and down again. When I get back to him, I see that he’s wearing a medic alert bracelet. “That’s good to know,” I think to myself. A glint of light catches my eye. I turn around to see someone’s goggles are reflecting the fluorescent lights in the pool. She takes a breath and then plunges her arms forwards again doing the breaststroke. Only a few minutes left until the Aqua-fitness class. Walking down the length of the pool, I pause underneath the speaker to hear the radio better. The song “Havana” by Camila Cabella plays. “Havana, mmm, uh-hunh… Oh, my heart is in Havana, mm, uh-huh…” Those probably aren’t the words, but that’s what can be made out inside the small basement pool that’s walls echo even the smallest whisper. All of a sudden, it’s quiet. The deafening silence seems to freeze patrons, pausing time itself, before the fast-paced Aqua-fitness music of 120 beats per minute blasts through the speakers.

            [Off rotation] 


Ethnographic Experiment #2

Lifeguard noun ˈlīf-ˌgärd: a person who is employed at a beach or a swimming pool to rescue people who are in danger in the water
— Oxford Dictionary

In 1964, the Lifesaving Society of Canada (LSS), accepted the enormous responsibility of establishing a standardized training program for Canadian lifeguards. Prior to this commitment, individual employers were responsible for teaching lifeguards how to recognize hazards in aquatic environments, perform rescues, treat victims for first aid, etc. The founders of the National Lifeguard Service Award (NLS) spent nine years researching drowning prevention and consulting lifeguarding experts to build a program that ensures that “all guards are immediately ‘on the same page’ when it comes to preventing and responding to incidents as a member of a team” (LSS, 1993, p.5). In 1973, the first NLS course was offered and the accompanying manual, Alert: Aquatic Supervision in Action, was published in February 1974. The NLS is the only lifeguard award recognized in the province of Ontario, and the gold standard across Canada – although some provinces also recognize other awards as well. The LSS requires that NLS candidates be a minimum of 16 years of age, and complete the necessary prerequisites: Bronze Medallion, Bronze Cross, and Standard First Aid (LSS, 2012). In total, it takes 78 to 84 hrs (depending on class sizes) to become a certified lifeguard in Canada.

It’s in this context that today’s lifeguards train, engage, and accept the responsibility of “accident preventers, rescuers, public relations officers, and administrators” (LSS, 1993, p.1).  For example, an experienced lifeguard of six years (having completed three NLS recertification) will be attentive to scanning patterns, recognizing hazards, and perform proper first aid. On a cold November day, said lifeguard scans the small 10 by 18-meter basement pool with as much attention and vigilance as she would a large 25 by 50m Olympic sized pool. Seven patrons, two families and an elderly gentleman, swim to and fro about the pool. The lifeguard counts the number of people in the water. She integrates this into her scan pattern, scanning the water up and down, from left to right, in a zig-zag pattern that covers the whole pool. When her eyes touch the upper right corner of the pool, she retraces the invisible pattern across the water, counting down to confirm that the number of patrons remains the same. She does not observe any signs of distress, physical hazards, rule infractions, or non-swimmers at risk of drowning in her scan zone; only happy families playing with their kids. A ten-year-old boy kicks across the pool towards his father and grandfather, splashing the water and making waves in the small space. The lifeguard roves around the pool, scanning the blind-spots from her previous position and keeping her eyes fresh. She hears an infant squeak and giggle in a baby-boat. The father is responsibly using the baby-boat to pull his daughter around the pool much to her delight. The lifeguard’s eyes rest on the infant, smiling and waving at the child with glee. Back to her scan, the lifeguard completes her circuit of the pool’s perimeter and finds herself back at her starting position close to the speakers. Her co-worker opens the guard office door to replace her.

With fresh eyes, the lifeguard returns to the pool deck. The first thing the lifeguard does upon taking the rescue tube from her co-worker is scan the water and count the number of patrons currently in the pool; mentally taking stock of which patrons are still there from her last rotation, which patrons have left, and which patrons arrived during her off rotation and how well do they swim. All bodies in the pool and on the deck accounted for, she roves around the perimeter of the pool to scan blind spots along the wall that are difficult to see when standing. After completing her initial scan, the lifeguard pulls the lanes ropes across the deck and hooks them into the wall, thereby dividing the pool into three lanes. Patrons proceed to swim across the pool in a counter-clockwise direction, sorting themselves into the appropriate lanes (fast lane, medium lane, leisure lane). The pool is also equipped with two speakers, one in the deep end and one in the shallow end. The radio is a welcomed tool for lifeguards to keep their minds active and engaged when scanning their zones in order to avoid succumbing to boredom or having their eyes glaze over. The lifeguard, a trained competitive swimmer herself, takes note of the different kinds of kick and strokes used by patrons to propel themselves across the water. A regular struggles to swim front crawl without running out of breath, so the lifeguard offers advice on exhaling in the water and extending his right arms reach to allow him more time to breathe on his side during recovery. She returns to her scan, counting and recounting patrons in a zig-zag pattern. A man in his early thirties flips himself over the rope that extends above the width of the pool. Lifeguards who supervise this lane swim are familiar with this gentleman and keep a close eye on any hazards for that may present themselves to him or fellow patrons when he flips. Her biggest concern is that the rope snaps in half while he holds himself mid-air, but so far, the rope has proven to be strong enough. As the lifeguard finishes her rove back to the starting point, a glint of light reflects off of a patron’s black goggles and into her line of sight. Her co-worker steps out, and the lifeguard informs her that a patron in the leisure lane is wearing a medical-alert bracelet. She enters the office.    



            For someone who’s spent ten years of their life dedicated to lifesaving, I noticed myself observing smaller details through my “anthropologist’s lens” than my “lifeguard lens” while conducting this fieldwork. The sound of the splashing, the babies squeaking, and the plop from the water returns tend to fade into the background when I supervise the pool as a lifeguard. Instead, the details made noticeable through my “lifeguard lens” pertain more to individual behavior, such as the boy who fell off the mat because he did not use it safely despite being informed of the pool rules by lifeguards. As such, writing the first ethnographic experiment was a lot of fun because I tried to notice and remember as many details as possible during my scan so that I could write down my observations during my off rotation.

After taking stock of my field notes, it became clear that I would write the first ethnographic experiment using sensory ethnography because my notes all referred to the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of lifeguarding. Therefore, I tried to echo the approach used by Hugh Raffles in his piece Deepest of Reveries (Raffles, 2010). by using repetition, onomatopoeias, and descriptive language such as similes, to communicate how my senses felt in the field. When I wrote my first draft of the first ethnographic experiment, I tried to remove myself from the narration and avoid “I” and use “one” instead. However, after further consideration, I realized that I use the term “patron” in the second sentence, immediately implies the relationship of lifeguard-customer used in aquatic settings. After that, I embraced my first-person narration and tried to write the ethnography in such a way that readers could put themselves in my shoes and feel what it’s like to be a lifeguard.

            Writing the second ethnographic experiment required more research because I was trying to adopt an institutional perspective of the ethnographic object of lifeguarding. This approach drew in part from Laurence Ralph’s Renegade Dreams in which he starts his ethnography with the definition of his ethnographic object (Ralph, 2014), and also in part from Heather Paxson’s The Life of Cheese because of the way she historically contextualizes institutions like the American Cheese Society (Paxson, 2013). This writing style allowed me to ground the sensory experience within the broader context of a lifeguard’s responsibilities to the public as “accident preventers, rescuers, public relations officers, and administrators” according to the Lifesaving Society (LSS, 1993, p.1). I enjoyed the way that Paxson embedded description and historical context between descriptive vignettes, so I tried to mimic her writing style and paint a vignette of my pool as an example of how the 78-84hrs of lifeguard training and scanning techniques are applied on the job. However, this historical context took more time to explain, and therefore, a lot less detail from my field notes could be incorporated into the second ethnographic experiment due to length restrictions.

            Finally, my biggest struggle with respect to writing down the lifeguard experience was how to incorporate off-rotations into each ethnographic experiment because, even when lifeguards are not scanning the water, they are still on duty. A lifeguard has more tasks to complete in the guard office than out on deck. For example, they greet patrons, answer questions about programming, respond to complaints, do laundry, fold laundry, conduct pool tests for ph and Chlorine, mop the change rooms, answer the phone, eat a snack, sometimes eat a whole meal… As a result, observing a lifeguard off-duty would constitute its own field site with its own set of ethnographic experiments.

            To conclude, I’m including a photograph of myself at work to give readers a visual idea of whose shoes they’re stepping into for the first ethnographic experiment. In 2018, I will embark on a new chapter of my life in 2018 which may take me away from lifeguarding forever. Therefore, I have greatly appreciated the opportunity to reflect on my decade of lifeguard training and employment. Lifeguarding has given me a constructive space to practice leadership, confidence, first aid, and teamwork skills. Finally, I want to encourage others to also consider lifeguarding for it’s personal growth, friendship, and employment opportunities. Lifeguarding goes above and beyond supervising an aquatic environment; it’s about problem solving, building confidence, making friends, meeting members of the community, and developing leadership skills that are transferable to any field of work or study outside of the pool.



Lifesaving Society of Canada (LSS). 1993. Alert: Lifeguarding in Action. 2nd, ed. Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data. Toronto. 

Lifesaving Society of Canada (LSS). 2012. “Brief History of National Lifeguard”. Lifesaving Society: The Lifeguarding Experts. Consulted on November 20th, 2017, at the following link:

Paxson, Heather. 2013. The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. California Studies in Food and Culture, v. 41. Berkeley: University of California Press

Raffles, Hugh. 2010. “The Deepest of Reveries” from Insectopedia. p. 264-265

Ralph, Laurence. 2014. Renegade Dreams: Living through Injury in Gangland Chicago. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.