A group of whale watchers passing by Juneau’s Shelter Island last week expected to just see some humpbacks, but instead responded to a strange radio message regarding drowning deer. According to the Gastineau Guiding Company, an 18-passenger tour vessel guided by naturalist Audrey Benson and captained by Annette Smith was in the area on Wednesday when they overheard a radio message regarding two deer attempting to swim between the islands. It was not unusual for deer to travel from island to island by swimming, and despite the chilly temperatures, deer are capable swimmers and usually make the trip without too much difficulty. At first, Smith and Benson did not think too much of it, and continued on to where a pod of whales was feeding. On their way back, however, they decided to swing by where the two deer were last seen. They discovered that by that time, only one of the deer was still in the area, and that another ship had been trying to rescue it without too much luck.
“We saw the single deer. It was clearly in distress,” Smith wrote on Facebook. “An Allan Marine boat was trying to rescue it using their life sling. They did their best, but could not help it. Finally they gave up and left. Everyone on their boat was very sad, knowing the deer was going to drown. It’s head had gone under a couple of times, and we knew knew the situation was dire.”
So Smith and Benson decided to lend a hand.
“We didn’t have fancy life slings, but we did have a rescue rope that will adjust easily to size, and we had a bow that goes down for beach landings…..so, we went to work,” Smith wrote. “I guided the boat to the terrified deer, and Audrey went into rescue mode. We enlisted the help of one of our guests, and with life jackets on, Audrey got the rescue rope around the little guy (yes….he was a guy..a little button buck)……and got the exhausted fellow into the bow of the boat.”
Smith recalled that the animal was so tired that it put up no resistance whatsoever. After covering it in a towel and bringing it to shore, the disoriented deer had problems adjusting back to dry land and kept on trying to get back in the water. Finally, with some coaxing from Benson, the animal ran off into the interior of Shelter Island.
“It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen on any of my tours,” Benson told KTOO. “I mean, you never know what’s going to happen, but for a deer rescue—I’ve never even been that close to a deer, I’ve never touched one—and to have an opportunity to assist this struggling animal, it was very intense.”
It is possible that the relatively young age of the two deer may have made their crossing more difficult, especially if they wandered off course even for a little. The tour boats did not see the other deer for the rest of the day, and it is presumed lost. Officials from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game say that drowning is not a significant cause of mortality for deer, although it does happen.