True North Blog

“Reality Television” is Not Reality – Part II

"Reality Television" is Not Reality - Part II

After too much delay, this post is a follow up to one that I wrote in early August (Part I) wherein I criticized a Bear Grylls video.  In it, Grylls, while “lost” at sea, gave himself an enema in order to stave off the effects of dehydration.  While what he did was technically correct, both biologically and medically, and he did mention that the source of his contaminated water was “freshwater,” it gave many viewers the impression that they could potentially hydrate themselves using a seawater enema.

Since I must admit that I was even confused — after all, hydration enemas have, in fact, been successfully used in genuine survival situations at sea — I turned to Jake Griebe of SOWMAS for his professional opinion.  Jake is a paramedic and chief instructor at Wisconsin-based SOWMAS, a school which specializes in combining wilderness medicine and wilderness survival.  Jake is a great friend of True North, and my go-to source when it comes to medical issues, wild edibles, and much more.

So, here is the scoop …

While most people know that drinking seawater in sufficient quantities will kill you, most don’t know the actual reason why.  The sodium content in seawater is so high that, when a person drinks it, the kidneys must generate enough urine to flush all the excess sodium out the body.  But, to do so, the body needs more water than is is actually in the seawater itself.  So where does the body get it?  It automatically pulls it from the body’s cells, thus triggering a chain reaction leading to rapid and severe dehydration.  In short, seawater is poison.

Okay, so you can’t drink seawater … But what about the Gyrlls’ enema?

First off, a water enema is a medically sound method of hydrating a patient who, for some reason, is unable to take fluids orally.  As Jake pointed out, the “Murphy Drip” was a type of enema invented by famed physician and surgeon, John Benjamin Murphy, in the late 19th century expressly for hydrating patients using an electrolyte solution.  When liquid is introduced into the colon, its membrane simply allows the liquid to pass through and be absorbed into the body — which seems counter-intuitive to most if us.  Still, this method is a nice alternative to hydrate a patient who, for example, vomits repeatedly after drinking, or due to some traumatic injury is physically unable to drink.

So, by extension, this type of enema can be a potentially lifesaving tool because it allows the survivor to attempt hydration using water that is not otherwise potable.  This is what the Robertson family did in 1972 to keep themselves alive while they drifted 38 days at sea after their sailboat sank 200 miles West of the Galapagos Islands.  Their only source of water was from rain, which they collected using a rubber canopy and funneling it into containers.  However, since the initial “wash” was always contaminated by dried seawater and bits of rubber, they placed the initial spill into separate containers.  Fearing to waste even a drop, Lynn, the mother and a nurse, used her her medical training to come up with the idea of using the contaminated yellow water as a Murphy Drip.  This worked because the rectal membrane, let the water pass into the body while keeping out the salt and rubber contaminates — Basically, this is just how food passes into the digestive system and is dried into feces.

But isn’t this what Grylls did?  Yes, in his defense, Grylls simply mirrored what Lynn Robertson did.  In his survival scenarion, his water was supposedly contaminated by guano, not seawater.  However, because his medical explanation of what he was doing was so limited, he inadvertently left many viewers with the impression that a survivor could use purely seawater as an hydration enema.

Based on what I have so far discussed, using a seawater enema at first blush would seem to make sense.  However, as Jake explained, introducing normally concentrated seawater into your rectum and colon (as opposed to rainwater that is just contaminated by relatively trace amounts of dried salt from runoff) would actually have the same effects as drinking it.  And, he adds, would definitely be far less comfortable.

To be fair, there has been peer reviewed scientific research which strongly suggests that seawater can, in fact, be safely used in a survival situation.  However, the research scenario was highly controlled, and, thus, not genuinely representative of an actual survival situation.

The moral of the story is twofold: Don’t drink seawater or use a seawater enema … And definitely don’t rely on “reality television” as your primary source of wilderness survival information.  There are many documented cases of people dying from doing so!

Instead, talk to experts, read from as many resources as possible, and consider taking a wilderness survival course.

Do you have any thoughts or comments?  Consider emailing True North … We’d love to read them, and share them with others.


Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook and YouTube.

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