A shark sighted by a Kennebunkport harbormaster off Goose Rocks Beach on Thursday morning was probably a great white shark, but without photographic evidence there is no way to state with certainty that the creature was indeed one of the ocean’s most feared predators.

Jim Sulikowski, a shark researcher, said the shark’s reported length (12 feet) and its proximity to the shoreline, suggest that it was a great white. Great white sharks tend to come closer to the shoreline in their search for prey, but there is a chance that the sighting was that of a basking shark. Basking sharks are about 20 feet long.

“Based on its size and proximity to shore it could very well be a great white shark,” said Sulikowski, a former University of New England marine biologist and professor, who does ocean research in collaboration with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy of North Chatham, Massachusetts.

Sulikowski, who recently was appointed associate director of the School of Math and Natural Sciences at the University of Arizona, also appears as a guest on the Discovery Channel’s popular “Shark Week” show, which is airing this week.

Kennebunkport Police Chief Craig Sanford said harbormaster Chris Mayo was on a boat a mile from shore when he saw the 12-foot shark around 11 a.m. The employee notified town officials, who contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and Maine Marine Patrol. The chief also walked down on the beach to notify people of the shark, and the police department posted a warning on its Facebook page.

Sanford said some beachgoers were concerned, while others were unfazed.

“You get the range of people who grew up with ‘Jaws’ and grab their children and run, and the folks that say, ‘Yeah, that’s where they live,’ ” Sanford said.

The harbormaster used to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and felt confident in his ability to identify the shark correctly, Sanford said. The harbormaster did not take a photo or video, and he was still out on the boat as of Thursday afternoon.

The police chief said the shark appeared to have left the area.

“It took off,” he said. “Hasn’t been spotted since then.”

Sulikowski said there is no doubt that there are great white sharks swimming in the waters off Maine. He’s just not sure how many are actually in the Gulf of Maine.

According to Sulikowski, confirmed sightings of great white sharks in Maine waters have been been steadily increasing over the past three years. In 2016, there was one; there were two in 2017; and there were seven in 2018. The Kennebunkport sighting was the first this year.

Over the past decade, the great white shark population has increased off Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy attributes the increase to the population recovery of gray seals, a favorite food source for the sharks.

The conservancy, working in collaboration with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, has been able to monitor and track about 300 great whites  off Cape Cod. There is no official population estimate.

Sulikowski said a number of the Cape Cod sharks, which have been tagged to monitor movements, are swimming to Maine to hunt for seals and other prey. Research has shown that it doesn’t take very long for a shark to make the journey – about 24 to 48 hours.

The sharks are traveling to Maine because there is intense competition for limited food off Cape Cod. Sharks are opportunistic predators who not only feed on seals, but also enjoy a meal of fish, squid or another shark.

“White sharks are not out to get you. People are not on a shark’s menu. If they were, the number of encounters between sharks and people would be much higher,” the conservancy says on its website.

Sharks are more likely to bite a human than eat someone and there are three reasons why. Sharks could mistake a person for a marine mammal, they are curious creatures and use their sharp teeth to explore, or they could be reacting defensively after being startled by a person.

Shark attacks on people are rare. There was a fatal encounter in the fall of 2018 between a white shark and surfer in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, but that was the first fatal attack off Massachusetts since 1936, the conservancy said.

 


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