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Great white shark checks in early off Martha’s Vineyard

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By Jenna Duncan
Globe Correspondent / May 7, 2011

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A great white shark was spotted yesterday off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard by a group of fishermen, officials said.

The shark, which was confirmed as a great white by a state specialist, was circling the carcass of a minke whale off Aquinnah on the western tip of the island, said Reginald Zimmerman, a spokesman for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Jeff Lynch of Chilmark, a commercial fisherman who sails out of Menemsha, said he was going mackerel fishing yesterday morning with two friends when they spotted the dead whale and then saw the great white swimming underneath it.

“The funny thing is I was going mackerel fishing to get shark bait,’’ he said.

Lynch said he motored out of Menemsha at about 6 a.m. and spotted the whale carcass and shark at 7 a.m., about 1 to 1 1/2 miles west of Aquinnah. He said they drifted near the site and observed the shark until 7:30 or 7:45 a.m.

“It was kind of following me around,’’ said Lynch. He said it came within 2 feet of his boat.

“I had a few ‘Jaws’ quotes going through my head,’’ he said. “I go shark fishing all the time. But to see something that size was absolutely incredible.’’

He estimated the animal was 20 feet long and weighed 2,000 pounds.

Lynch said he took pictures of the shark and e-mailed them to shark specialist Greg Skomal, a biologist with the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries, who wanted to tag the large specimen but was not able to reach the site in time.

Will Farrissey of Oak Bluffs was on the boat with Lynch and said the shark was the largest he has seen.

“It was pretty amazing seeing it,’’ Farrissey. “It is definitely something I’ll remember my whole life.’’

The fishermen approached the dead whale because US Coast Guard officials had asked them to take photos of it. When their boat approached, the shark swam below, Farrissey said.

“All we said was, ‘We don’t want to sink now,’ ’’ he said.

The encounter ended when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Environmental police towed the whale carcass away and the shark disappeared, Lynch and Farrissey said.

“What I really want to stress is there’s no need for panic,’’ said Zimmerman, the state agency spokesman.

Zimmerman said there have been sharks spotted in the area in previous years because they follow seals for feeding.

Last year, eight sharks were tagged by the state, and five were tagged in 2009. Over last summer, beaches were closed because of the sightings in New Bedford, Chatham, and Westport.

Skomal said yesterday’s spotting was not unusual for the area, but that it is early in the season for shark sightings.

“It does seem to be a little bit early to me,’’ he said. “I didn’t expect to see these animals until later in the month or early next month.’’

Skomal said it is difficult to try to predict why the shark came earlier this year, or what this may mean for the summer.

“Certainly the sighting of a single shark is not unusual,’’ he said. “We have to see how it plays out for the next month.’’

While no official warning has been released, Zimmerman stressed that people should take caution in the water and avoid areas with seals.

Martin Finucane of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Jenna Duncan can be reached at jduncan@globe.com.