Beachgoers are greeted with a shark warning sign at the end of the boardwalk at Ferry Beach State Park in Saco on Sunday. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

With no confirmed or reported shark sightings in Casco Bay on Saturday and through Sunday evening, the swimming restrictions at four Maine state parks could be lifted, as planned, on Monday.

“Everything is status quo at the moment, which means the four parks – Popham, Reid, Crescent, and Ferry – having a restriction to waist-deep water only remains in effect,” Jim Britt, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said Sunday. The department has jurisdiction over the state’s 48 state parks and historical sites. “We’re meeting daily and having discussions with the Marine Patrol and Marine Resources and hopefully we can lift those restrictions Monday.”

The restrictions were put in place following the first recorded fatality from a shark attack in Maine’s history. Julie Dimperio Holowach, 63, a retired fashion executive and summer resident of Harpswell, died Monday after being attacked by a shark while swimming about 20 yards offshore near her home on Bailey Island. The shark was confirmed as a great white shark based on tooth fragments.

On Friday, a confirmed sighting of a great white shark took place around 11:30 a.m. near Pond Island Ledges, east of Bailey Island and near the site of Monday’s fatal attack. That is the only confirmed sighting of a great white shark in Casco Bay since Holowach’s death, said Jeff Nichols, communications director for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Using both boats and aircraft, the Maine Marine Patrol is continuing to do “targeted patrols” to look for sharks in the Casco Bay region, Nichols said.

Both Britt and Nichols emphasized that there are many town and municipal beaches in addition to the four managed by the agriculture department. They urged swimmers, kayakers and paddleboarders to use caution and stay away from seals – great white sharks’ preferred prey – and any school of fish.

“What we are basing our messaging on is that we know there are great white sharks in the Gulf of Maine from Massachusetts to Nova Scotia,” Nichols said. “We’re cautioning in particular right now because this year there are a lot of menhaden. Seals feed on menhaden and sharks feed on seals.”

Midweek shark sightings near Popham Beach in Phippsburg could not be confirmed, Nichols said, because there was neither photographic evidence nor direct sightings by the Marine Patrol.

Nichols did say Marine Patrol has determined that the two Phippsburg reports were two people reporting the same shark. After those reports, Marine Patrol investigated the area and found an ocean sunfish, a large, harmless species with a dorsal fin similar to a shark’s.

“But it may not be that the sunfish was what was seen and reported,” Nichols said. “It was just that the Marine Patrol spotted an ocean sunfish at the same location as the reported shark.”

Beachgoers walk and wade at Ferry Beach State Park in Saco on Sunday. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Great white sharks have been documented in the Gulf of Maine since the 1800s. But attacks are rare in New England. Maine’s only previous shark attack was in 2010 when a scuba diver escaped injury by fending of an 8-foot porbeagle shark with his camera. According to the International Shark Attack File, housed at the Florida Museum of Natural History, there were 10 unprovoked shark attacks in New England states from 1837 to 2019, including the most recent fatality in 2018 at a beach in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.

It is “impossible to answer” if the shark that killed Holowach is still lurking nearby, said Greg Skomal, senior scientist for the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries. Skomal has directed the tagging of over 200 great white sharks in Cape Cod waters. Using the tags, which emit a sound wave, and buoyed receivers, Skomal has tracked shark ranges.

“If this (death) had happened off of Cape Cod, I would say it is likely that the shark is still hunting seals of the coast of outer Cape Cod because we have a strong sense of residency that those sharks exhibit in that area,” Skomal said. “The coast of Maine, we just don’t know enough about those sharks.”

Skomal added that the seal population is strong up and down the Maine coast, meaning a shark could just keep moving and continue to find meals, whereas the Cape Cod seal population fits in a smaller, more defined area.

Skomal said he has a few receivers up the coast of Maine. “We know that 40 of our sharks have been detected north of Cape Cod, including Maine, but for us to understand any sort of residency patterns we would have to have many more receivers.”

Two new receivers have been sent to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, Skomal said.

“Is Casco Bay a hot spot? We’re very interested in that. Are they spending more time there?” Skomal said.

But Skomal cautioned that even if Maine’s entire coastal area was covered in receivers with real-time detection capabilities, “you have to keep in mind that I haven’t tagged every shark in the ocean.”

That’s why caution and awareness, on the part of lifeguards, park rangers and individuals, is the best safeguard, Nichols said.

“One of the things Greg and others have said, this is a highly unusual event. It’s not a cause to panic, but what we are urging is just to be cautious and aware. If you see schooling fish, or see seals, stay away from them,” Nichols said.

The Marine Patrol asks that anyone who sees a shark contact them and provide a location and photos, if possible.

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