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Seal rescuers don’t need viral video to know great whites lurk in Maine waters

Posted Aug. 06, 2013, at 7:25 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 07, 2013, at 1:29 p.m.
This seal, affectionately named Charleston Chew, was discovered with shark bite marks in Cape Elizabeth last week. Now at the University of New England Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center in Biddeford, she is currently on pace to be released back into the wild in mid-September.
This seal, affectionately named Charleston Chew, was discovered with shark bite marks in Cape Elizabeth last week. Now at the University of New England Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center in Biddeford, she is currently on pace to be released back into the wild in mid-September. Buy Photo
Animal Care Technician Asheley Simpson views an X-ray image of an injured seal at the University of New England Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center in Biddeford Tuesday.
Animal Care Technician Asheley Simpson views an X-ray image of an injured seal at the University of New England Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center in Biddeford Tuesday. Buy Photo
Shannon Prendiville, animal care laboratory technician at the University of New England Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center, points out what she believes are shark bite wounds in a young seal admitted to the facility's care last week.
Shannon Prendiville, animal care laboratory technician at the University of New England Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center, points out what she believes are shark bite wounds in a young seal admitted to the facility's care last week. Buy Photo
This seal didn't receive her wounds from a shark attack like some others at the UNE Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center in Biddeford. Instead, she was struck by a boat off the coast of Massachusetts.
This seal didn't receive her wounds from a shark attack like some others at the UNE Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center in Biddeford. Instead, she was struck by a boat off the coast of Massachusetts. Buy Photo

BIDDEFORD, Maine — When video of what appears to be a great white shark chomping on a minke whale carcass off the coast of Boothbay Harbor circulated last week, the appearance in Maine waters of the fearsome ocean predator attracted a lot of attention.

That lobsterman’s footage was taken just a day before a fisherman on a Wells jetty reported seeing a shark there.

But Shannon Prendiville, an animal care technician at the University of New England’s Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center, didn’t need to watch video to see visual proof that Maine waters have their fair share of sharks. On Thursday, a young harbor seal the center’s staff affectionately named “Charleston Chew” arrived at the Biddeford facility with a semicircle of puncture wounds in her side.

Textbook shark bite marks.

Charleston had been discovered on the coast of Cape Elizabeth. Her rehabilitation center roommate, a yet unnamed young male seal of approximately the same age, was found the same day with severe-looking lower extremity gashes that are less obviously the results of triangular teeth, but Prendiville said center technicians believe his wound is also a shark bite.

The male seal was found in Wells.

Coincidence? Cue the “Jaws” music.

“That video last week caused quite a stir,” Prendiville said. “[But] we see a handful [of seals with shark attack wounds] each year. I don’t think we’re seeing a particularly large number this year. We don’t want to scare people by saying there are sharks everywhere, and they can’t go into the water.”

So while the rest of Maine was abuzz with talk of great whites, the seal scientists most likely to see shark attack victims were unsurprised, unimpressed and went about their business as usual.

The shark appearance off Boothbay Harbor was notable in part because of the video footage and rarity of great white sightings in Maine waters, but shark experts who track the travels of the ocean’s largest predators have said the lack of firsthand encounters is no indication that the Gulf of Maine is free from great whites.

The water temperature up this far north — in the high 50s and low 60s this time of year — is just fine for the razor-toothed fish, contrary to widely held beliefs that Maine waters are too cold for sharks. Plus, there’s plenty for them to eat.

“I think the seal population off the coast is pretty healthy, so there’s going to be a large attraction for predators,” Prendiville said. “I think a lot of people think sharks don’t like harbor seals, but we see pretty clearly that’s not the case.”

The good news for Maine beach goers and boaters? Sharks may like to dine on harbor seals and minke whale carcasses, but they’re not crazy about the taste of people, experts say.

According to the National Geographic website, “most [great white attacks on humans] are not fatal, and new research finds that great whites, who are naturally curious, are ‘sample biting’ then releasing their victims rather than preying on humans.”

In a nutshell, a great white wouldn’t necessarily clamp down on a human swimmer intent on killing him or her, but rather might nibble to see what he or she tastes like. Even innocent sample size attacks by great whites, which average 15 feet in length and can grow longer than 20 feet, leave pretty serious marks, however.

A Colorado tourist who suffered leg injuries while swimming off Cape Cod last summer, in what was the first confirmed great white attack in New England since the 1930s, was perhaps an example of a victim of this “sample biting.”

In a story responding to the recent Boothbay Harbor video, national environmental news and advocacy website PlanetSave noted that “lightning strikes are far more likely [to injure humans] than shark attacks.”

Charleston Chew, on the other hand, was fully intended to be a main course for some hungry shark.

Prendiville said her center receives between 100 and 110 patients every year, and about 80 percent of those are seals of one kind or another — the rest are mostly sea turtles. Of the various kinds of seals admitted, a relatively small 5 percent to 10 percent have traumatic injuries caused by shark attacks or boat propellers, she said.

So not only are sharks not a statistically serious threat to humans in Maine waters, they don’t even represent the biggest threat to seals seen by wildlife rescuers. Most of the pinnipeds who come to the center are juveniles who are sick or struggling to adapt to life without their mothers feeding them, Prendiville said.

The animals are discovered on a beach somewhere in New England and reported to authorities. The stranded marine wildlife hotline in Maine is 800-532-9551, Prendiville said, and that service directs callers to first responders from either the organization Marine Mammals of Maine or College of the Atlantic’s Allied Whale Program, depending on the location.

Representatives of those institutions then determine whether the beached animals need medical care or, as is sometimes the case, are just sunning themselves. If the former, they load the sea creatures into dog kennels and transport them to the Biddeford facility, where an array of medical equipment is available to provide X-rays, oxygen, antibiotics and blood tests.

Charleston Chew has received more fanfare than some of her fellow patients because her perfectly shaped shark-bite wound came soon after two high-profile shark sightings in the state. On Sunday, the cable network Discovery Channel began its annual “Shark Week” programming.

Prendiville said in just the five days since Charleston arrived, her grisly looking wound has shrunk by about a third in size, and the young seal is currently on schedule to be released back into the wild in mid-September.

“These animals heal very, very fast compared to other animals,” she said.

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