For years we told each other that the sharks sometimes spotted off the Maine coast didn’t pose swimmers, divers and surfers any problem. The reason for our optimism: They never had, so clearly, they never would.
Then, earlier this week, a New York City woman lost her life when she was bitten by a great white shark while swimming off the southern Maine town of Harpswell.
Now, everything’s different.
The fears that some of us first developed back in the 1970s, after watching “Jaws” for the first time, have returned. Sharks in general — white sharks specifically — are scary again. Our waters seem less safe. And some of us are understandably reluctant to step foot in saltwater again.
Of course, those reactions are not universal.
Many of us were shocked by news of the attack, but our reactions to it differed drastically. One woman I know scrapped plans to take her kids to the beach for some ocean swimming, even though the beach she’d planned to visit was more than 100 miles from the scene of the attack. Meanwhile, the day after the attack a BDN photographer took photos of teens leaping from a bridge into the tidal water just a short distance from where it happened.
Neither reaction is wrong, I suppose. All of us deal with perceived threats in different ways.
And as a University of New England shark expert told me a few years back, most of the time, Mainers don’t have much to worry about when it comes to sharks.
James Sulikowski knows sharks like few do, and his work has been featured on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week programming for several years.
Back in 2017, after a large shark had been spotted near a southern Maine beach, Sulikowski told me that Maine beaches were actually pretty safe.
“You have far more [of a] chance of being bitten by another human being on a subway in New York than you do getting bit by a shark,” he had said at the time.
Even in the wake of this week’s tragic attack, Sulikowski is probably correct. We’re probably in more danger of an unprovoked attack on a subway in the Big Apple than we are in our coastal waters.
But that’s not to say that shark attacks can’t happen, as this week’s stunning news proved.
Even three years ago, Sulikowski made one thing crystal clear: Great white sharks would make their way to Maine’s waters. It was just a matter of time before they arrived.
“[White sharks] are looking for a food source, and there’s lots of seals on [Cape Cod, where the whites are swimming right now]. That’s why they hang out down there,” Sulikowski said at the time. “And our seal population is exploding up here in Maine, so it’s only a matter of time before we’re going to see the same thing here that we have on the Cape.”
During a Tuesday press conference, Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher advised swimmers to use caution in Maine’s coastal waters. Among his suggestions: Avoid spots where there are obvious food sources that sharks might target, like schools of fish or an abundance of seals.
Those tips certainly make sense.
But so, too, do the words Sulikowski offered up three years ago, when he had tried to calm the fears of Mainers who had learned that big predators were swimming near their favorite beaches.
Until then, many of us thought that great white sharks were creatures that only existed elsewhere. Or in the movies.
“Sharks in general are misunderstood. Most people have this innate fear of sharks because of, you know, ‘Jaws’ and everything that we have grown up with,” he said.
And should we find ourselves near those sharks? Well, Sulikowski had some good advice.
“I would say, keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t freak out. That’s one of the worst things you can do,” he said. “Just keep doing what you’re doing, leisurely making your way back to shore.”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke. His first book, “Evergreens,” a collection of his favorite BDN columns and features, is published by Islandport Press and is available wherever books are sold.