Boat captain and passengers rescue deer from Cape Fear River

Updated: Oct. 13, 2020 at 10:21 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Captain Paul Riccobon has spent many days on the Cape Fear River since arriving in Wilmington from the West Coast. He and two passengers were returning from a training trip to Southport Monday afternoon, when one of the passengers spotted something Captain Paul had never seen in the river before - a six point buck swimming toward Fort Fisher.

“I’ve been boating basically my whole life," said Riccobon, who is the Training Captain for the Freedom Boat Club. "I’ve swam with some pretty big sharks and had them this close to my face. But I never expected to look over and see antlers in the middle of a river.”

Once the initial ‘wow’ wore off, he noticed the buck was swimming in circles and appeared in need of help. “It was in the middle of the river, and wasn’t doing that well, kind of swimming in circles,” Riccobon said. “It was headed toward Fort Fisher, and I knew that side of the river wasn’t that much for deer.”

Riccoban didn’t feel right leaving the buck in that predicament, so he asked one of the passengers to pull the boat close to the animal and attempted to grab onto its' antlers.

“It took a couple times but I finally got to grab its' antlers, and he bucked quite a bit a few times and did a couple of circles,” the captain remembered. "Finally I got him calmed down, and I told them (the passengers) to drive toward shore. We slowly drove toward the shore as I held his head above water, and he kind of kicked as we went. As we got close—we got about 30 feet from shore—I felt his feet hit the ground, so I let him go and he was off and running.”

According to Master Wildlife Enforcement Officer Clayton Ludwick with North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, deer swim across the Cape Fear River regularly.

“It’s crazy how good deer can swim,” Officer Ludwick said. “The only time I’ve seen one in distress is in the ocean, where they can’t tell where they are going."

Captain Paul Riccoban spotted this six point buck swimming in the middle of the Cape Fear River...
Captain Paul Riccoban spotted this six point buck swimming in the middle of the Cape Fear River Monday afternoon.(D. Riccobon | WECT)

Officer Ludwick says if boaters see deer swimming in the river or even in the Intracoastal Waterway, it’s best to leave them alone. Riccobon said he knew deer could swim, but was surprised to learn they swim in the Cape Fear River. In the two years since he became a captain, he’d never seen one, until Monday. He added that if he found himself in the position again, he’d likely to the same thing.

“He was swimming erratically, and he was pretty close to the middle of the river and he still had a long way to go,” Riccobon said. “It just didn’t look like a good situation and I didn’t feel right leaving him there. I think I would still do the same thing, at least knowing in the back of my mind that guy is on land and not at the bottom of the river, that makes me feel better."

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