HARPSWELL, Maine — After a woman was attacked by a great white shark while swimming in Mackerel Cove off Bailey Island in Harpswell on Monday, a man called 911 to report the emergency that was unfolding just offshore.
Then he called his friend, lobsterman Glenn Rogers, hoping he might be able to get there with his boat sooner than emergency responders could
But it was too late, Rogers said Wednesday afternoon.
Julie Dimperio Holowach, 63, a New Yorker who spent her summers on Bailey Island and who had been out swimming with her daughter, was already dead.
It was the first reported fatal shark attack in Maine history and just the third in New England since 1936.
“The whole thing happened extremely quickly,” he said. “The two women were laughing and swimming. Then my friend started to hear them scream.”
Holowach, who was wearing a wetsuit, looked to bystanders onshore as if she had been pulled underwater. Then Rogers’ friend saw the woman seem to “come out of the water a little bit,” he said. The daughter continued to scream, and swam toward shore as the kayakers responded, paddling out to flip Holowach over in the water.
By the time Rogers got there, he said the kayakers were bringing her body to shore.
“She was dead within minutes after the shark hit her,” he said.
The shark was determined to be a great white shark from a tooth fragment recovered from the scene. Two days after the attack, shockwaves reverberated out from Mackerel Cove to the Maine coast and beyond as locals and tourists tried to make sense of the unthinkable.
Clockwise from left: Natanael Rivera, 6, from Brunswick plays in the shallow water at Mackerel Cove on Bailey Island in Harpswell on Wednesday; a handwritten sign hangs on a pallet off Land’s End Beach on Bailey Island; Alfred Racine and Stephaney Illig have a picnic along the beach at Mackerel Cove Wednesday. [Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN]
While coastal dwellers know that shark bites are extremely rare, that hasn’t eased their fears after Monday’s fatal attack.
Alfred Racine of Brunswick was enjoying a picnic lunch at the cove on Wednesday, not far from where Holowach was killed.
“The chances of it happening again are really not great,” he said. “But I don’t want to be the one to test it.”
It seemed likely to people in the area that the shark had mistaken Holowach for a seal, an important source of food for great whites, which are not commonly found off the coast of Maine.
According to experts, one reason great white sightings seem to be increasing on both sides of the Gulf of Maine in summer is because of its seal population, which is believed to be on the rise. Though shark sightings are rare, scientists and fishermen say they are not surprising, given sharks’ large coastal territory and the gulf’s food supply.
But even if the shark attacked Holowach in a case of mistaken identity, it was still a lot to take in.
“It’s so sad — who could believe it?” Pam Heal of Warren, who was walking on the beach at the head of the cove with her dog, said of the shark attack on Wednesday. “A great white. It’s like out of a movie. Scary.”
On a picture-perfect summer day, with temperatures climbing well into the 80s and the sun bright overhead, locals warned tourists not to let their children wander too far in the water at the beach at the head of the cove.
At scenic Land’s End Beach, at the end of Bailey Island, a handwritten sign announced that the beach was closed to swimmers. It didn’t say why.
The swimming moratorium is not limited to Harpswell, either — swimmers at state beaches are prohibited from going beyond waist-deep water.
A Maine Marine Patrol airplane pilot searched for sharks from the air over the southern Maine coast, as other officers looked for them from boats patrolling Casco Bay. Other fishermen were out looking for sharks too, locals said.
“It’s COVID — what else is there to do?” one woman, who did not want to give her name, said.
Pedro Rivera of Brunswick likes to come to Mackerel Cove with his 6-year-old son, Natanael Rivera, to hunt for sea glass and to play in the water. Hearing about the shark attack this week scared them.
“It’s a little disturbing to think it’s a great white,” Pedro Rivera said. “To think that there’s something of that caliber up here. It’s shocking, the fact that it was that kind of attack and that kind of shark.”
The Riveras still wanted to come to the cove — but on Wednesday, the father followed closely behind the son as he played with feathers and splashed in the shallow water.
“Usually I would sit on the beach when he’s playing, but he’s never going to be further away from me than he is now,” Pedro Rivera said.
Tourists were not immune from the shock and horror of the attack, either. A family visiting Maine from St. Marys, Kansas learned about the shark attack after checking into their Bailey Island motel.
Clockwise from top left: A boat seen from the Land’s End Beach at the end of Bailey Island in Harpswell passes by the Little Mark Island Monument; Glenn Rogers, fisherman from Orr’s Island, arrived by boat at the scene of Monday’s fatal shark attack in Mackerel Cove shortly after it happened; Mackerel Cove on Bailey’s Island in Harpswell. [Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN]
“I was really shocked — ‘You’re kidding, right?’” Bailey Wichman said. “I was really confused at first. I feel it’s definitely something like in the movies. ‘Oh, someone got attacked by a shark.’”
Then they found out that a relative of the woman who died was staying at the same motel. It brought the tragedy even closer to home.
“It’s really sad,” Tami Wichman said.
Dawn Allen, whose mother has a house at the head of the cove, said that she has been trying to warn people who come to the beach, especially those with small children. On Wednesday, there were no signs alerting would-be swimmers about the possible presence of sharks in the cove.
“I feel like I need to say something, to let them know,” she said.
One swimmer who knew about the shark attack, but did not let it stop her from plunging into the cool water of Mackerel Cove, was Emma Stout of Casco. She had gone to Land’s End Beach first, but decided against swimming there because of the sign that had been posted.
“There’s so much fear, and I personally have so much fear in my life,” Stout said, adding that she did not want to let fear get the best of her. “It’s a beautiful day, and my one day off a week.”