Even if you're not "from around here", you may have heard about Maine's first fatal shark attack recently in the news. An unfortunate tragedy that left the whole state scared and saddened.
Well, as an aspiring shark biologist I'm here to give you some of the facts surrounding shark attacks in general, and give you some of the details of this real life horror story if you haven't heard about it, yet.
The Recent Attack
A 63-year-old woman, Julie Dimperio Holowach, from New York was swimming off the coast of Bailey Island with her daughter.
When Dimperio Holowach, wearing a black wet suit, began struggling in the water, her daughter swam to shore and started screaming for help.
People kayaking nearby were able to bring the badly hurt Dimperio Holowach to shore, however by the time emergency responders reached the scene she had passed away from her injuries.
A tooth fragment was recovered at the scene confirming that it was in fact a shark attack. Greg Skomal, a Great White Shark expert and the senior scientist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, determined that a Great White was the culprit.
This was a horrible incident, and we at the Bloody Pulp extend our deepest condolences to the family and all of those affected. We can't even imagine that pain and horror.
Great White Sharks
Sharks are known for being apex predators, the top of the food chain, born killers. Great White Sharks especially, thanks to some help from pop culture, have been the target of fear and misunderstanding.
These sharks live in waters between 12-24ºC (54-75ºF). Like all sharks, their skeletons are made entirely of cartilage - except for their teeth and jaws. On average, they grow to be anywhere from 11-16' long, with the females being larger than the males. So Bruce from Jaws? Most likely a girl.
Luckily for humans, Great White Sharks like to eat things with high fat content - seals, large fish, and other marine mammals. They are also known scavengers, meaning they don't just kill their meals, they'll also eat things that have already died.
Great White Sharks in New England
Great White Sharks aren't new to New England. These sharks are highly migratory, they swim all over the place, so it makes sense that sometimes we'd see more in Maine than other times, but for a while they did seem to leave almost completely.
To understand why they left or at least why we're seeing more of these creatures now, we have to talk about seals. Gray Seals to be specific.
By the late 1960's the Gray Seal population had been decimated in the Gulf of Maine - an area that stretches from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Nova Scotia in Canada. When the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972 there were well under 100 of these seals left in Maine. Some sources even claim they were entirely extirpated in the state!
With the seals being hunted by humans for pelts and to get rid of competition for fish, the sharks couldn't compete for one of their favorite food sources in the area, so they just left.
There are three types of sharks - out of around 400 different species - that make up the majority of shark attacks on humans (at least, most of the serious/fatal attacks on humans), Great Whites, Tiger Sharks, and Bull Sharks.
Most unprovoked attacks on humans are thought to be a case mistaken identity - like a person in a wetsuit or on a surfboard looking similar to a seal from underneath, or are exploratory bites. Like I said before, these sharks prefer to eat things with way higher fat content than humans, so we're not really their first choice on the menu.
Think about it though, sharks don't have hands, they interact with the world with their mouths (kind of like a puppy!) Unfortunately for us comparatively small and fragile humans, when sharks are curious about what we are they bite. And they're much bigger and have way more sharp teeth than a curious puppy.
How to Avoid a Shark Attack
The only way to 100% avoid contact with sharks is to stay out of the water. I'm talking the ocean, and rivers/lakes connected to the ocean - Bull Sharks are super cool, they are able to swim MILES into freshwater with no problems!
Realistically, you're more likely to get bitten by another person than you are to be bitten by a shark. So staying out of the water is a bit of an overreaction to the possibility of encountering a shark
You should avoid swimming too far from shore, preferably in a group. Try to minimize splashing, since sharks are attracted to it (things that they like to eat tend to cause a ruckus if in trouble or hurt, so splashing says "potential easy meal over here!")
Don't swim if there have been sharks spotted nearby in the last few hours. Again, Great White Sharks don't tend to stay in one area for too long.
Sharks tend to be more active at dawn, dusk, and at night, so swimming during the day is your safest bet.
Avoid swimming near seals. Keep in mind, it's actually illegal to approach a seal, you must leave 150 feet between you and the animal - both in the water and on the shore. So it's best to avoid getting too close, for both shark reasons and to avoid harassing Marine Mammals. Though if you do see a seal or other Marine Mammal on the beach or that seems like it needs help in Maine you should call the Maine Marine Mammal Reporting Hot-line at 1-800-532-9551.
If you want to try out a simple product to deter sharks, check out Sharkbanz. These bands produce a magnetic field that makes sharks want to get away from you. Sharkbanz lists all their research on their website as to the effectiveness and how they work, too, if you're interested!
But in the end, as we all learned in such a devastating way, humans are not the top of the food chain. Sharks can be unpredictable, and deadly. Use your best judgement, and always be careful.
Once again, The Bloody Pulp team sends our thoughts out to anyone affected by this horrible incident. Especially Julie's (pictured above) family. Read her obituary here.