Photo by Tristan Spinski

Shark Attacks in Maine Were Unthinkable — Until Bailey Island

Maine's first-ever fatal shark attack jolted natives and visitors alike into acknowledging that great whites regularly swim off the state's shores — and that there’s plenty about them we don’t know.

By Kathryn Miles
From our June 2021 issue

Monday, July 27, 2020, dawned sultry and bright on Bailey Island, a village of about 400 full-time residents in the midcoast town of Harpswell. Early that morning, lobsterboats sputtered out of picturesque Mackerel Cove. A lone harbor seal appeared, then ducked back underwater. A handful of summer visitors watched from their docks, sipping coffee. On the cove’s east side, at a small and shallow inlet off the bridged island’s main road, Charlie Wemyss-Dunn and his wife, Katy, walked from the water’s edge back to the small cottage they and Charlie’s parents had rented for the month. There, they began a day of remote work at their computers. 

By early afternoon, the temperature had topped 90 degrees. Katy was settled onto an outdoor sofa on the house’s back deck. Charlie sat with his laptop at the kitchen table, near a picture window. They both remember looking up as Julie Dimperio Holowach and her daughter, Alex, wandered down to the water from their house, a few doors down. Julie and her husband, Al, had purchased the summer property some 20 years earlier, the culmination of a long-standing love affair with Maine’s islands. After both retiring from careers in the New York fashion world, the couple had begun spending more and more of each year there. During that time, Julie had become known for her community work: she served on boards, mentored young women, and volunteered for several nonprofits. Alex, a physical-education teacher at a private school in New York City, visited for holidays and long summer vacations. Over the years, the entire Holowach clan had become much-loved community members on Bailey Island, where residents — summer and year-round — tend to treat one another like family.

A former president of the fashion bag and accessory brand Kipling USA, Julie Dimperio Holowach was a longtime summer resident of Harpswell’s Bailey Island, deeply engaged in the community. Photo by Dario Cantatore, via Getty.

Julie and Alex descended a neighbor’s sloping yard, walked out onto a dock, and slid off it with the ease of swimmers who spend a good deal of time in the water. Although the ocean was temperate by Maine standards, Julie wore her usual wetsuit. A high tide filled the inlet. As the pair bobbed around, their chatter and laughter floated up and into the nearby rental houses. The Wemyss-Dunns took a momentary break from their work, both thinking how nice it was to hear a mother and daughter enjoying their time together. They listened as the two women took turns diving below the surface and marveled at how clear the water seemed. 

For an hour, the Holowaches swam easy circles, gradually making their way some 50 feet from shore. Then, at about 3:20 p.m., Julie Holowach let out a terrified scream. Katy Wemyss-Dunn looked up just in time to see the swimmer thrown into the air, then dragged below the surface. Both she and Charlie heard Alex cry for help. Still in the kitchen, Charlie assumed someone had experienced a medical crisis — a heart attack, maybe. He ran outside, where Katy was already struggling to launch a tandem kayak. By then, Alex had clambered onto the inlet’s one exposed rock. Nearby, Julie floated on her back, unmoving. The water around her had turned red.

As Charlie and Katy tumbled into the kayak and started paddling, Charlie suggested that Julie had been struck by a boat propeller. Katy, in a state of shock, shook her head. She was having trouble speaking, but she knew what she had just witnessed was no boating accident. It was a deadly shark attack.

By the time the Wemyss-Dunns got out beyond their long dock, Alex had swum back to shore, near where she and Julie had entered the water. She was still shouting for someone to help her mom. A man renting the house next door dialed 911 to report the attack.

When Charlie saw Katy struggling to catch her breath, he paddled her back to shore, where neighbors had begun comforting Alex. Charlie’s mother took Katy’s spot in the kayak, and the duo paddled back out to the rock, where Julie Holowach still floated on her back, not moving. Charlie’s mother grabbed the swimmer’s hand and supported Julie’s head with her kayak paddle as Charlie slowly ferried them back to shore. By the time they arrived, police and ambulance crews were pulling into the house’s circular drive, along with several other members of the Holowach family who also live on Bailey Island. They dragged Julie out of the water and laid her on the lawn. Emergency medical technicians pronounced the 63-year-old dead at the scene.

Violent interactions between sharks and humans are exceedingly rare. In 2020, the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File recorded 96 reports of people bitten by sharks worldwide. Of those, 57 were classified as “unprovoked,” which is to say that the people involved were not actively hunting or fishing for the sharks, nor were they attempting to feed or otherwise harass the animals. Ten of last year’s unprovoked attacks proved fatal. Just three of those deaths occurred in the U.S.: one involved a shortboarder off the coast of Maui, while another surfer was killed about 100 yards offshore near Santa Cruz, California. Julie Holowach’s death was the third of these fatal attacks and the first confirmed shark-related death in Maine’s history. 

As news of the attack began to spread, both Maine residents and regional scientists were dumbfounded — “blindsided” is how one researcher put it. The day after the attack, Maine Department of Marine Resources commissioner Patrick Keliher told a press conference, “It’s not something we ever would have considered in Maine waters.”

The state medical examiner recovered a tooth fragment left by the animal that attacked Holowach. Regional shark experts confirmed it belonged to Carcharodon carcharias, commonly known as a great white. For many Mainers, that revelation shattered an ironclad sense of security. 

Like many large fish, great white sharks (“white sharks,” to biologists) are notoriously difficult to study. They prefer turbid water and don’t need to come up for air, making them difficult to spot. They are fierce apex predators, making them difficult to handle. Because they are not commercially fished, biologists have little data from which to infer changes in their population numbers. “For most of human history, white sharks have been elusive, shrouded in darkness and mystery, from our perspective,” says Walt Golet, a fisheries scientist who holds joint appointments at the University of Maine and Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

The head of Mackerel Cove, photographed this spring, is a scenic landmark overlooking the lobsterboats in Bailey Island’s working harbor. The attack last July took place near the mouth of the cove. Photo by Tristan Spinski.

But that doesn’t mean great whites haven’t been regular visitors to the Gulf of Maine. Millennia-old white-shark teeth have been found in Maine’s early Native American oyster middens. Colonists recorded multiple interactions, including an attack involving three fishermen in a dory off the coast of Damariscotta. As late as the 1960s, mature white sharks were regularly seen in Penobscot Bay, especially off the coast of Rockland, in a stretch of water then known as “shark alley.” In 2019, passengers on a whale-watching cruise recorded video of a massive white shark eating a seal just off Deer and Campobello islands.

And yet, many Mainers have remained “blissfully unaware,” as one marine researcher put it, of what really dwells beneath the surface. 

John Chisholm, an adjunct scientist at the New England Aquarium, documents the presence of sharks, including great whites, in the Gulf of Maine. “As surprising as it may be for a lot of people to hear, we know from historical sightings that sharks have been a part of the fauna of the Northwest Atlantic going back centuries,” Chisholm says. “That includes the Maine coast from York to Passamaquoddy Bay.”

As news of the attack began to spread, both Maine residents and regional scientists were dumbfounded — “blindsided” is how one researcher put it.

Estimating historic population numbers in the Gulf of Maine is difficult, Chisholm says. The state’s massive coastline — some 3,478 miles, not including the islands — and its relatively low population density mean that, for many decades, few people were on the water to observe any resident sharks. What little was known mostly came from fishermen’s reports: a random shark turning up in a gill net or weir, a carcass washing up on a beach.

From the late 19th to the mid-20th century, those fishermen earned state bounties for killing seals, viewed as predatory pests. As the population of gray seals declined, so too did the presence of large sharks, particularly great whites, for which the seals are a favorite meal. Chisholm and other shark researchers speculate that the decline in seals, along with an uptick in sharks killed by fishermen, caused white sharks in the Gulf of Maine to reach their lowest population numbers in the 1970s and 1980s — just as the state’s coastal tourism industry really began booming.

More recently, shark numbers have rebounded in New England waters. The population of gray seals has swelled substantially since the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which prohibits their harassment or killing. Shark numbers have also been boosted by federal restrictions in the 1990s that dramatically limited shark fishing in the Atlantic. But both the white shark’s precise population numbers and much of their life histories have remained unknown. It was only with an ambitious tagging program, launched by the state of Massachusetts in 2009, that this began to change.

When the emergency calls came in from Holowach’s neighbors on Bailey Island, the Cumberland County sheriff’s office, along with the local fire department and the U.S. Coast Guard, began mounting a response. As their calls went out across the radio, several local fishermen hightailed it to the scene of the attack. At a nearby lobster pound, a worker jumped into his skiff and sped to the island’s small public beach, where a dozen or so kids splashed in the waves, unaware of the shark in the water nearby.

Not a week before, researchers from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries had placed the first of several experimental acoustic receivers off the coast of Cape Cod. The “real-time” receivers are capable of alerting beachgoers, via an app, to the presence of sharks the agency has tagged. Dr. Greg Skomal, a senior DMF fisheries scientist, has led the Bay State’s shark-tagging effort from its inception. He says that, to date, 230 animals — by his estimate, about 20 percent of the total Massachusetts white-shark population — have been tagged, mostly around Cape Cod. Each tag emits a unique acoustic ping, which can then be recorded by receivers attached to special buoys anchored in the area. The agency has deployed dozens of such receivers since 2009, most of which — unlike the new, experimental ones — are passive, meaning they must be physically accessed for scientists to obtain a record of the pings. 

Data gleaned from those monitors have taught Skomal and other researchers a lot about white sharks that frequent the waters off Cape Cod. It confirmed, for instance, their highly migratory nature. Consider the wanderings of “Keelie,” a female tagged off Cape Cod in 2015, 12 feet long and considered immature (white sharks have a life expectancy exceeding 70 years and do not become sexually mature until they are about 30). Named for a large bite mark on her caudal keel, the narrow part of a shark’s tail, Keelie has regularly traveled between Canada and Florida and made several stops in Maine, including the waters off Old Orchard Beach. 

The tagged shark researchers have nicknamed “Keelie.” Photo courtesy of the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.

Keelie’s wide-ranging travels owe in part to white sharks’ temperature tolerance: they favor ocean waters from 48 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature range that makes northern New England, including the Gulf of Maine, an ideal habitat from about May until November. (Though the Gulf of Maine is warming, most scientists don’t believe this has had an appreciable effect on its shark concentrations.) Although white sharks have been observed feeding on everything from porpoises to right whale carcasses, their preferred prey are calorie-dense gray seals, and they will forage far and wide to find seal colonies. Sharks have an excellent sense of smell, Skomal notes, along with electroreceptors located just under their skin that allow them to detect otherwise hidden prey. “We know now that sharks also have remarkable navigation skills,” Skomal says. “If they successfully feed in an area, they are going to return again and again, year after year.”

This is particularly true in the waters off Cape Cod, where seals are known to congregate. The shallow waters and sandy seafloor there make it relatively easy for Skomal and his crew to spot and tag sharks. The large number of beachgoers on the Cape, coupled with a recent rise in shark attacks (since 2012, Cape Cod has witnessed four unprovoked attacks by white sharks, including one fatal attack), has only intensified the need for tagging and monitoring there. 

Maine’s state scientists have known of white sharks’ increasing presence off the state’s coast, but until last year, the state’s Department of Marine Resources had initiated no similar tagging and monitoring program. Maine has only recorded one report of a shark attack since the colonial era: in 2010, a commercial diver was charged by an 8-foot porbeagle, a cold-water shark that resides in the Gulf of Maine year-round. (Maine waters are also home to other shark species, including sand tiger and blue sharks.) The diver wasn’t injured, and experts suspect that the shark mistook the diver’s shiny camera for prey, since porbeagles’ diets consist mostly of small schooling fish, like herring. Even after that incident, a fatal attack still seemed to most like an impossibility. Until last year.

“Most people aren’t comforted by this fact, but it’s nevertheless true that if they’ve gone swimming in Maine, they’ve probably been near a shark and haven’t even known it,” Chisholm says. “Unfortunately, when there is an encounter, it’s such a tragic and traumatic event. It reminds us that our oceans are as much wilderness as the Amazon or the Congo. That can overwhelm us and stir a primal fear that is difficult to control.”

For the Holowach family and much of the Bailey Island community, the days immediately following Julie’s death were a blur. The outfitter who had rented the kayak to the Wemyss-Dunns quietly came and collected it. Katy began reliving the incident in terrible nightmares; Charlie and his parents couldn’t imagine getting back in the water. A few houses down, Al Holowach, Julie’s husband of over 35 years, experienced his own trauma and grief. A year later, he still remembers few details about those days: the small parade of lobsterboats that circled the waters off the Holowach house, to say goodbye; Governor Janet Mills authorizing a lowered flag at the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department on the day of Julie’s funeral — a tribute, in part, to Julie’s years of service to the community.

A triathlete, Julie had gone for long training swims almost daily. After her death, Al says, no one in the family wanted to go back out on the water. He had their boat pulled. Before Julie died, the two of them would regularly have friends over for evening cocktails on their back porch, where they could watch the sunset over the cove, but in the wake of the attack, that tradition was too painful. Al stayed on Bailey Island until the fall, then left for the Holowaches’ winter home, in Florida. “Julie was the matriarch who kept everything together,” he says. “Her loss left a big hole in our family — and our entire community.”

As the Holowach family mourned, state officials began their own response to the tragedy. The Bureau of Parks and Lands, which manages state beaches, temporarily limited water activity at nearby Reid and Popham Beach state parks, as well as at state parks farther south, in Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth. The Maine Marine Patrol began monitoring the coast, by boat and airplane, between Casco Bay and Sheepscot Bay. After a week without a shark observation, the state lifted restrictions at its beaches.

In the days following the attack, midcoast Mainers began reporting dead seals washing up, some with 19-inch bite marks, suggesting a shark at least 11 feet long had been responsible. At a press conference, Department of Marine Resources commissioner Patrick Keliher appeared to read little into such sightings. “This is something that is a fairly common occurrence throughout the year,” he told reporters. “Reports of great whites and activity with great whites is not something new.”

Immediately after the fatal attack, Massachusetts’s DMR sent up several acoustic receivers, which Maine’s DMR deployed in a variety of locations, including near Bailey Island. In the months that followed, member agencies of the New England White Shark Research Consortium sent additional receivers. By mid-October, 11 had been deployed, between Wells and Popham Beach. Data collected by these receivers revealed the presence of at least 16 sharks, including 14 of the 230 great whites tagged by the Massachusetts DMR. 

Data provided by the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Erin Summers is the director of the Maine DMR’s division of biological monitoring. While she wasn’t surprised the acoustic monitors confirmed the presence of white sharks along Maine’s coast, she says she hadn’t known what to expect in terms of total numbers — or what the monitors would reveal about sharks’ movements while they are here. A 13-foot male known to researchers as “Salty,” for instance, traveled regularly between Cape Cod and Maine last season. Another animal, designated “White Shark 2020_07,” roamed up and down the Maine coast, pinging at least six different Maine receivers between late August and November. The months of August and September logged the greatest numbers of sharks in Maine’s waters, while the monitors that recorded the most individual sharks were those deployed near Wood Island, off Biddeford Pool, and Bailey Island, each pinged by at least four different white sharks.

Both Summers and Skomal caution that it’s far too early to draw conclusions from this data, collected over just four months. Each acoustic receiver has a range of only about 500 meters, and that distance can be further limited by factors like boat-traffic noise, sediment in the water, wave action, and naturally occurring obstacles like rock formations. Some receivers positioned last year were in the water fewer than six weeks, and some were not activated until the end of the season, when many sharks have already begun migrating southward. 

“The fact remains that we still haven’t sampled 90 percent of Maine’s waters,” Skomal says. “We just don’t yet know where the shark hotspots are.”

Also unclear is just how many untagged sharks may visit the Gulf of Maine. In many ways, the sandbars of Cape Cod aren’t white sharks’ ideal hunting grounds. They seem to prefer habitats that allow them to spread out and ambush their prey with stealth and speed, rapidly accelerating from depths of 10 to 15 meters. This describes conditions that the Gulf of Maine has in abundance.

Last year, Maine’s DMR attempted its own test project to tag sharks, but the efforts were unsuccessful. The agency started very late in the season, Summers says. Also, the same conditions that make Maine’s waters ideal hunting grounds for sharks make it hard for researchers to find them. 

“We still have so much to understand about the presence of sharks in the Gulf of Maine,” Summers says. “To understand their habitat use, we’re going to need to mark consistent trends over time. That will require us to carve out existing staff time and other resources so that we can make a meaningful impact.”

Where shark behavior is concerned, last year’s fatal attack prompts more questions than answers. It didn’t occur around dawn or dusk, considered prime hunting times for great whites. No known seal colony is nearby. The site itself is a narrow cove, busy with boat traffic, conditions biologists once assumed white sharks avoided.

Bailey Island residents are still struggling to make sense of the tragedy. Julie Holowach was a perennial source of joy in their community. Neighbors had grown accustomed to seeing her, wetsuit-clad, practicing smooth strokes through Mackerel Cove. Julie was passionate about swimming, and many say they can’t comprehend that she was killed doing not only something she loved but something that was a part of her workaday fitness regimen. “I mean, it’s not like she was bungee jumping,” one friend said.

The attack particularly shook neighbors and other Mainers who share Julie’s appreciation of the ocean — and her swimming habits. “It was this beautiful, calming part of our Maine existence,” says Kate Wolf, a longtime friend of Julie’s and a neighbor in Harpswell. “For some in our circle, it took on a more ominous existence last summer, almost like the water had become bad.” She and others, Wolf says, are hopeful that, in time, they’ll be able to reclaim the peace and serenity of the water.

This year, the state is installing 33 acoustic receivers. As of this writing, scientists haven’t settled on a site plan, but the DMR’s Summers says they will focus on strategic areas, like Bailey Island and some of the southern beaches, high-use spots that are also good white-shark habitat. Obtaining data from the monitors is a cumbersome process: scientists must reach them by boat, download the data there, and then sift through it back at the office. Last year, the monitors recorded some 20,000 pings; 19,000 of those were from non-shark fish like sturgeon, tagged for fisheries-research purposes, that happened to be swimming by.

“Most people aren’t comforted by this fact, but it’s nevertheless true that if they’ve gone swimming in Maine, they’ve probably been near a shark and haven’t even known it.”

The DMR and Bureau of Parks and Lands have also submitted a funding proposal to purchase one real-time receiver, like the new ones at Cape Cod, which they would deploy off Popham Beach. It could immediately alert lifeguards and other first responders to the presence of tagged sharks in the area. If that initiative were successful, they’d hope to buy others. But each device costs $15,000 to $20,000, plus the expense of installation, so committing to the project would require significant budget increases.

In the meantime, BPL has updated some protocols: putting up warning flags to alert swimmers to known shark activity, providing lifeguards additional training, boosting shark-related outreach through both traditional and social media. “We’re expanding our public information about great white sharks to include how to ‘Be Shark Smart,’ to stay safe and to protect wildlife,” BPL director Andy Cutko says. 

It’s a start, but biologists, managers, and others agree more research and public outreach is critical. So does Al Holowach, who plans to return to his family’s Bailey Island home this summer.

“We know Maine’s marine life is changing,” he says. “More and more seals are showing up in the water here.” He wishes the state would do more to communicate what they already know about white sharks and make real investments in future study, along with public outreach programs. He says he worries about kids growing up swimming and learning to sail off the Maine coast, like his sons once did. Julie, he says, would not want her death to change anyone’s love of the water, but she would want people to know the risks and incorporate that knowledge into how they participate in water activities. 

Her friend Kate Wolf agrees. Given her career in fashion, Julie would have been passionate about helping scientists devise ways that wetsuits and other swimming apparel might help swimmers stand out and be safe in the water. She would have lobbied for the release of data and increased public awareness. “She wouldn’t have wanted any of us to stop loving our time in the ocean,” Wolf says, “but she definitely would have really wanted us all to stay engaged.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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