Flowers have been placed along the beach at Mackerel Cove on Bailey Island in Harpswell following a fatal shark attack on Monday. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

2020 continues to stretch the bounds of what we thought possible in Maine, and not in a good way. As if a global pandemic wasn’t enough, this week has brought a tornado warning, an earthquake and the kind of shock and tragedy better suited for a horror movie than a quiet town on the Maine coast.

For the first time on record, there has been a fatal shark attack here in the state. A 63-year-old woman from New York City was killed Tuesday while swimming with her daughter in Harpswell. The woman, Julie Dimperio Holowach, was a seasonal resident described by those who knew her as “charming” and someone who “had a wonderful life.” It’s painful to see it end in such heartbreaking and horrific fashion.

The details and eyewitness accounts of the attack, which investigators have concluded to be from a great white shark, are haunting. It’s a stunning tragedy, and one that is sure to send shivers up and down the coast.

It certainly has had an impact in Harpswell. George Coffin, a longtime fisherman, speculated to the BDN that the attack “probably changed the town forever” and that he was unsure if he would want his grandchildren swimming there now.

“I know they say it’s an odd, strange, one-in-a-million thing, but if it happens once, it can happen again,” he said. “Who wants to let their grandchildren swim after something like that?”

The instinct to think twice about jumping in the water, or letting a loved one do so, is understandable — especially in that area right now. Caution should rule the day as the Maine Marine Patrol continues to be on the lookout for sharks and is encouraging anyone who sees a shark to report it.

But that doesn’t mean Harpswell or other coastal communities should be overtaken by fear, and for now, it appears they aren’t.

Swimming has been restricted to waist-deep water at two nearby state parks. Harpswell is planning to post signs at beach areas owned or utilized by the town, but doesn’t currently anticipate closing those areas, according to fire administrator and emergency management agent Art Howe.

“In the aftermath of this tragedy, we are advising swimmers to use the utmost caution and recommend that they not go further than waist-deep at this time,” the town said in a July 28 statement. “Be especially aware of your surroundings while swimming or recreating in the water and avoid going near seals or schools of fish.”

The reaction to proceed with caution rather than all-out fear is a good one.

Maine’s Commissioner of Marine Resources, Patrick Keliher, called the attack “a highly unusual event” — it’s only the third fatal shark attack in New England since 1936 — while also noting that great white sharks aren’t “something new,” with recorded sightings in the Gulf of Maine going back into the 1800s. There have been sightings in recent years up and down the coast.

These sharks have been here, according to researchers and sightings, and more are appearing in pursuit of seals. That’s something to be aware of and be cautious about, but it’s not something that should keep everyone out of the water indefinitely.

At the risk of making everything about COVID-19, the idea of sharks lurking unseen in the ocean bears at least some similarity to the pandemic. We’ve known there are sharks in Maine waters, and scientists knew that an unidentified pathogen could cause a global outbreak. We’ve now seen the very real human cost of these sometimes hidden dangers, and that realization requires people to adapt and maintain perspective without letting fear take control.

It may be easy to say from up here in Bangor, but we can’t let fear keep us fastened to dry land. It’s time for caution, for compassion and for realism about the risks seen and unseen.

“There’s so much fear, and I personally have so much fear in my life,” one swimmer in Harpswell said Wednesday. She added 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.”