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What we know about the fatal shark attack in Maine

Authorities say a great white shark attacked Julie Dimperio Holowach about 20 yards off the shore of Bailey Island.

Waves wash up on the shore of Casco Bay as a fishing boat passes by a day after a woman was killed in a shark attack. Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe

A New York woman was killed in a shark attack while swimming off the coast of a Maine island on Monday.

Maine officials said Tuesday that Julie Dimperio Holowach was about 20 yards off the shore of Bailey Island in Harpswell when she was attacked.

It is the first recorded fatal shark attack in Maine — and the second recorded unprovoked attack by one of the ocean predators in a decade. It follows two years after Massachusetts saw a Revere man killed by a shark while boogie boarding at a Wellfleet beach and a New York man survived but suffered severe injuries in another attack by a great white at a Truro beach.

“This is a highly unusual event,” Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said at a Tuesday press conference. “However, at this time, the department is urging swimmers and other people recreating in or around the waters of the Casco Bay region, and in particular near Bailey’s Island, to be aware of their surroundings and to avoid schools of fish, which will attract seals. The seals in return will attract sharks.”

Below, what we know about the second fatal shark attack New England waters in two years.

What Maine officials are saying about the attack

Maine Department of Marine Resource Commissioner Patrick Keliher walks to the microphone to answer a question as he stands beside Maine Marine Patrol Major Rob Beal during a Tuesday press conference.

During the press conference on Tuesday, Maine officials said Dimperio Holowach, who was wearing a wetsuit, and her daughter were swimming approximately 20 yards from the shore of Bailey Island when the attack occurred around 3:26 p.m. on Monday.

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The woman’s daughter was able to make it back to shore, uninjured.

Officials expressed gratitude for the quick actions of nearby kayakers, who helped bring Dimperio Holowach to the shore, where she was pronounced dead by local EMS.

“In the face of that situation, the fact that they were able to kayak into that area and help bring the body back to shore was nothing more than miraculous, and we certainly sincerely thank them,” Keliher said.

Tom Whyte was an eyewitness to the attack that claimed the life of the 63-year-old, according to The Boston Globe. He told the newspaper he was working in his second-story office overlooking the island’s Mackerel Cove when he saw the two swimmers head into the water.

Whyte told the Portland Press Herald that the older woman was about 10 to 15 feet away from her daughter, who was not wearing a wetsuit. He heard the family members giggling and laughing but then heard Dimperio Holowach scream, he told the newspaper.

“It looked like she was pulled under,” he said. “I saw her underwater and just her hands were above water.”

Her companion swam back to shore and screamed for help, neighbors running to her side, he told the Globe. Whyte said he watched as a distraught kayaker approached the floating woman in the water, who was brought back to shore.

“It is all very surreal,” he said.

The shark was not observed in the area after the initial contact of the attack, according to officials.

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Keliher said he consulted with Greg Skomal, the senior fisheries scientist for the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game who leads the Massachusetts Shark Research program, following the attack. Using a fragment of a tooth that was recovered, Skomal identified the ocean predator involved in the attack as a great white shark, the commissioner said.

“I want to stress that this is a very highly unusual event,” Keliher said. “In fact, this is the only confirmed fatality in Maine waters from a shark attack. The only other confirmed shark attack in Maine waters occurred 10 years ago, near Eastport, and that shark was determined at the time to be a porbeagle shark.”

Maine Marine Patrol will be conducting a follow up investigation in the coming days, according to the commissioner.

Major Rob Beal of Maine Marine Patrol said during the press conference his department is continuing to monitor the area immediately around Bailey Island for sharks and asked any sightings to be reported to patrol officers.

“This morning we have field staff both on the water in the immediate area and also we’ve conducted a flight stretching between Casco Bay and Sheepscot Bay where we did not observe any sharks present in the area,” he said. “We urge swimmers and others recreating in the water, including those using paddle craft, to avoid areas where they witness schools of fish and seals. Since sharks, including great whites, do venture into Maine’s coastal waters, we urge people to avoid swimming or paddling near seals and schooling fish, which are prey for sharks.”

What we know about Julie Dimperio Holowach

Tom Whyte points to the area where he witnessed the shark attack that killed his neighbor as she swam in the waters off Bailey Island.

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Officials said Tuesday that Dimperio Holowach and her family owned property nearby and spent about four or five months every summer in the Maine coastal community.

“The individuals were well known in the community, very active within the community while they were here in the summer months,” Keliher said.

Neighbors told the Globe that Dimperio Holowach, a resident of New York City, could be spotted most mornings walking or jogging on the main road of the island and used a neighbor’s floating dock in Mackerel Cove to access the water. She and her husband lived seasonally in a home on Elden Point Road.

Marie Schmon, an island resident, told the Globe that Dimperio Holowach was a “welcoming, warm, civic-minded” woman who “always had a smile on her face.”

Beal, who described himself as close with the tight-knit coastal community of Harpswell, said the 63-year-old and her husband are “well known and very respected individuals” in the neighborhood.

“The community is really at a tough juncture in trying to process yesterday’s event,” he said.

What shark experts are saying 

A view of the dock where Tom Whyte said he watched his neighbor and her daughter get into the water shortly before the shark attack.

In a statement, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a nonprofit that works with Skomal to study, tag, and track the ocean predators off Cape Cod and the shores of Massachusetts, expressed its condolences to Dimperio Holowach’s family and friends.

The nonprofit stressed that although sightings of great whites are “rare” in Maine, they do happen.

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“White sharks have long been known to be seasonal inhabitants of the Gulf of Maine, and they have been observed preying on seals and porpoises in Maine’s coastal waters,” the conservancy wrote. “Sightings data, catch records, and tagging data indicate that white sharks occur in the region from the early summer through the fall.”

In addition to its work with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, the conservancy added that it is continuing to collaborate with scientists at the New England Aquarium, University of New England in Maine, Arizona State University, and the Fisheries and Oceans Canada to “expand our knowledge of white sharks in these areas” to help promote public safety and awareness.

James Sulikowski, a former University of New England professor and researcher who conducts shark research in Maine, told the Press Herald that more white sharks have been seen off the Maine coast in recent years.

“Shark interactions with humans are very rare in Maine,” Sulikowski told the newspaper Monday evening. “My guess is that the person was mistaken for a food item.”

Keliher said during the Tuesday press conference that the Bay State’s Skomal is examining existing satellite tagging data of great whites to see if any of the sharks moved north from Massachusetts in recent days.

“But again, the rarity of this event, the fact that it’s happened, does not mean that it’s going to happen again,” the commissioner said. “We just urge everybody to continue to remain vigilant when they’re in any areas of high probability.”

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Relating his conversation with Skomal about the attack, the commissioner said it is possible that the wetsuit worn by Dimperio Holowach could have appeared like a seal to the shark. 

Nick Whitney, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, told the Globe it’s possible the shark mistook the swimmer for a seal or was “investigating.”

“Occasionally they will investigate with their mouths,” he said. “Even a small investigatory bite from a white shark can be fatal.”

Keliher said due to the “rarity” of the attack, widespread beach closures by his department are not being undertaken, though he reiterated that swimmers and those recreating in the water should be aware of their surroundings and avoid schools of fish and seals.

“We have consulted very closely with our counterparts at Mass. Department of Marine Fisheries; we feel like the prudent thing to do at this time is to just continue to express caution in the area and while swimming and recreating,” he said. “It’s the rarity of the event that made us believe that we didn’t need to take action.”

However, some beaches under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry are not allowing swimmers to go in water deeper than their waist.

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Anyone who sees any shark activity in Maine waters is being urged to contact the state’s Marine Patrol. The information they receive in turn will be passed on to researchers, Keliher said.

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