The setup is minimalist: A camera records the deep end of a crowded wave pool filled with blue inner tubes bobbing in the surely urine-tainted chlorine waves, the heads of children bobbing inside those tubes. Then: catastrophe! A child goes under, limbs herky-jerky as swimmers look on. You look on, too. Next: heroics! A lifeguard saves the kid. This isn’t staged; it’s real footage. Welcome to Lifeguard Rescue, the greatest and most untainted YouTube channel.
Lifeguard Rescue’s videos are uploaded by the manager of an unnamed waterpark as a way to teach people what it looks like when someone is struggling in the water. Views range from tens of thousands to as many as 16 million. I suspect the discrepancy is arbitrary, based on chance pickup from media outlets; the entries that go viral are almost identical in content to the least popular — they’re Where’s Waldos for near disaster. The crowd is so dense and the pool is so large that it’s difficult to scan for the distressed kid, especially since they’re often tucked off to the side of the frame. The suspense is baked into the conceit: Somebody’s going to start drowning. But it’s not stressful to watch, because you know the scene will have a happy ending. Lifeguard Rescue won’t pull some Atonement bullshit on you. Things will work out, because it’s a video love letter to quiet competence.
The video quality isn’t great — it looks like surveillance footage, or a cheap tripod set up in the corner of the pool — but that’s OK. It just makes the viewer work a little harder to scan for the distressed swimmer. The camera never zooms in, so the rescues often happen in the background or side of the shot. Almost every time, the other swimmers continue chatting and splashing around, sometimes craning their heads to look at the rescue scene with mild interest or boredom, or ignoring it altogether; the humdrum reaction reminds me of the part of W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” that goes:
And this part:
I love this YouTube channel so much it reminds me of poetry!!!!!!!!!!!!
There are plenty of other videos of lifeguard rescues on YouTube, and if you watch enough Lifeguard Rescue, they’ll appear in your recommended box. Some are daring ocean escapades, with sinewy guards braving enormous waves to retrieve a swimmer from the clutches of the sea. Many of them take place in Australia. Many of those videos are objectively more exciting than the offerings on display at Lifeguard Rescue. But I don’t love them as much.
There is nothing slick or professional about the videos, but there’s something that moves me about seeing those lifeguards do their jobs well, and about watching a scene of summer fun slide into crisis and then back into peace in such a short period of time. It’s simultaneously comforting (whew, they made the save!) and terrifying (damn, it’s easy to drown). Also, it is good to throw on if you’re trying to fall asleep and want to have gently disquieting dreams. Lifeguard Rescue has layers.