By John Macone
---- — PLUM ISLAND -- The city’s Harbormaster office is used to facing unknown situations when it gets called out for a rescue, but this one might take the prize for one of the strangest.
Around 3:30 p.m. yesterday the Coast Guard received a distress call from a boater. A rescue was required off the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge beach.
But it wasn’t your usual two-legged swimmer. This swimmer had four legs, doe eyes and big ears. It was a deer that swam a half mile off the coast, and was now struggling to keep its head above water.
The Coast Guard’s smaller rescue boat wasn’t available, so the Newburyport Harbormaster’s boat was asked to respond.
“It was having a hard time swimming in the water,” said Harbormaster Paul Hogg. “It was exhausted. Someone had already grabbed it to hold it up. It couldn’t keep its head above water.”
Deer are known to swim into the ocean occasionally for a variety of reasons -- to escape predators, to cool off, or to wash insects out of their hides. Hogg noted its normally better to let them swim, as raising them into a boat could harm them. But this deer was clearly in trouble, and too far from the beach to get back on its own.
“I don’t know if it got caught in a rip tide or didn’t realize how far it had gone, but it was pretty far out,” Hogg said.
The doe was lifted aboard a harbormaster vessel, brought to shore and carried onto the beach on a sloped spit of sand between parking lots 2 and 3. The rescue was watched by a number of people, some of whom snapped photos. One woman noted that refuge workers gave the deer water to help it restore its energy, but the exhausted doe could barely respond.
“It was so tired it couldn’t keep its head out of the water,” said the woman.
The doe sat on the beach for hours shivering, but gradually becoming more alert and stood up. The refuge sent a wildlife officer to monitor its condition, but it was unknown whether it survived the night.
This has been a busy week on the local waters. Over the weekend, a 609-pound thresher shark that had been caught 60 miles off the coast was brought into Newburyport. On Tuesday, there were reports of a shark sighted off Salisbury Beach, Plum Island, and in the mouth of the Merrimack. The shark seen off Plum Island, which was swimming about 100 yards or so offshore, was confirmed by a refuge employee as a basking shark -- a harmless but large shark that feeds on plankton.
As for the harbormaster department, the deer rescue was a first.
“We’ve rescued seals, birds, turtles,” said Hogg. “Just when I thought I’d heard it all, we’re rescuing a deer. I never know how my days might go.”