Swimming deer spotted in the bay is no surprise to wildlife experts

A deer swims under the Verrazzano Bridge toward Jamestown in the West Passage of Narragansett Bay in August.  LIZ REINSANT-LATAILLE/FACEBOOK

A deer swims under the Verrazzano Bridge toward Jamestown in the West Passage of Narragansett Bay in August. LIZ REINSANT-LATAILLE/FACEBOOK

Fall is here, watch for deer. And that goes for boaters, too.

The rut will arrive with the falling leaves as summer comes to an end, which means bucks will start mating.

The rut is usually accompanied by road signs warning drivers about deer, and while motorists on the roads in Jamestown have been trained to keep an eye for deer, the same could go for boaters in the bay.

An Aug. 29 post on a Jamestown community Facebook page by Liz Reinsant-Lataille included a picture of a deer swimming in the West Passage with the Verrazzano Bridge in the background.

“Saw this deer swimming from the mainland to Jamestown last week,” she wrote. “There is a first for everything.”

The post received 260 likes, 27 shares and 59 comments, which is relatively popular for the community page. It also begs the question about whether deer are natural swimmers.

According to David Kalb, a supervising wildlife biologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, white-tailed deer are good swimmers, and swim for longer distances and in deeper waters than may be expected for a large terrestrial mammal.

“They’re not super-fast in the water, but they are certainly able to move long distances,” he said. “Deer have an incredible stamina. They can go a long way before they get tired. Miles is not a question.”

Deer also swim as a means of egress to avoid predators, and Kalb has seen does swim across water bodies to avoid aggressive bucks in mating season. Deer, moreover, swim to explore or move to another area for a better habitat or food availability, which is probably how they came to Conanicut Island in the first place.

Similar to dogs, deer use their front and hind legs to swim, but their legs are narrow and they cannot swim as fast as a canine. Deer can swim up to 15 mph and as far as 10 miles, according to Deer World, a website that has been cited by PBS, National Geographic and the University of Michigan. While deer can be spotted swimming in the summer, Kalb said it is easier for them to swim in their gray winter coat as opposed to their reddish-brown summer fur.

“The winter coat is hollow, so the hair actually has air inside it,” he said. “Because of that, they have a really nice buoyancy factor. The hair is not as dense as, say, a beaver where they’re not going to get wet, but it’s hollow and warm so they can get in the water, swim and get out and stay fairly comfortable.”

Some deer species can swim better than the white-tailed deer found in Rhode Island, such as the sika deer of Japan, which have a stockier build and live in a wet, marshy environment.

Deer can be found on most of the islands of Narragansett Bay, including those that are not populated by humans, such as Dutch, Gould and Patience. Smaller islands in the bay, like Spar and Goat islands, will not have a deer population, officials said.

One island that deer are unlikely to reach by swimming is Block Island. The deer population there was introduced by humans in 1967, and there is now an overabundance of them in New Shoreham. Kalb said it would be difficult for them to swim that distance, which is at least 15 miles from mainland Rhode Island.

Kalb said deer likely first reached the Narragansett Bay islands either by swimming to them or walking when the bay froze in the winter time.

Deer can be spotted swimming in the bay year-round. While the DEM does receive reports from the public about swimming deer, they do not keep records of those sightings and it is unknown where they are most commonly spotted in Rhode Island waters. Kalb said he hears of reports once every few years.

Kalb said anyone seeing deer swimming in the bay should give the animal its space. According to the agency’s hunting regulations, the hunting or pursuit of a deer is prohibited while it is swimming in any waters in Rhode Island. Deer are unlikely to be in distress while swimming, and a sick or injured deer is more likely to find a spot on land to rest instead of entering the water.

“If a deer goes into the water, it probably has a reason for doing so,” he said. “A deer in poor condition is probably not going to get in the water knowing that they’re going to struggle.”

Last year, a group of boaters found a deer swimming near the Ann Street Pier in Newport that seemed to be in distress. It was heading towards an area where they believed it could drown. After removing the animal from the water, they brought it to Fort Adams State Park and set it free.