PHIPPSBURG — State officials placed new swimming restrictions at four state beaches in response to reported shark sightings Wednesday at Popham Beach State Park.

The restrictions at parks in southern and midcoast Maine come days after the state’s first fatal shark attack and as the Maine Marine Patrol uses boats and planes to monitor Casco Bay for sharks. On Wednesday, the marine patrol responded to two reports of shark sightings near Popham Beach in Phippsburg, including one report from lifeguards who said they saw a shark chasing a seal.

Also Wednesday, a widely circulated Facebook post about a shark sighting near Cousins Island in Yarmouth triggered an alert from Cumberland town officials. That alert was lifted Thursday when officials learned the photo and video of the shark had been taken days ago and well offshore.

Julie Dimperio Holowach, 63, a seasonal resident of Bailey Island in Harpswell, was killed Monday by a great white shark that attacked her as she swam 20 yards from shore with her daughter, who was not injured. It was only the second shark attack ever reported in Maine. In 2010, a scuba diver off Eastport escaped injury by fending off an 8-foot shark with a video camera.

For a third day on Thursday, the marine patrol continued to search Casco Bay for sharks, both from boats and from the air. Those patrols will continue until further notice, the department said.

After the attack, swimmers at Popham Beach and Reid State Park were restricted from going beyond waist-deep water. Now, swimmers are being asked to stay even closer to shore following reports of sharks in the area.

Beachgoers at Kettle Cove State Park in Cape Elizabeth stay in waist-deep water on Wednesday after a fatal shark attack in Casco Bay on Monday and several subsequent reports of other shark sightings. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Bureau of Parks and Lands is now restricting Popham Beach State Park to ankle-deep water access and Reid State Park to knee-deep water. Water access at Ferry Beach State Park and Crescent Beach State Park is limited to waist-deep water.

The changes were made “out of an abundance of caution” after lifeguards at Popham Beach reported a possible shark sighting on Wednesday, department spokesman Jim Britt said.

The marine patrol searched the area and did not find any sharks, but did spot an ocean sunfish and seals feeding on fish. Ocean sunfish are harmless, but also have a fin that can be seen above the surface, and can be mistaken for a shark’s dorsal fin.

Popham Beach lifeguard Wesley McKenna said Thursday that he was one of four lifeguards who saw what they thought was a shark around 4 p.m. Wednesday. The lifeguards had been watching through binoculars for 30 to 35 minutes as seals hunted fish about 50 yards off Fox Island when they saw a commotion in the water.

“We saw a rather large fin cutting through a rather large bait ball (and) pursuing a seal,” he said. “It whipped around and moved in the direction the seal was going.”

A sign at Kettle Cove in Cape Elizabeth on Wednesday advises swimmers to stay near the shore. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

McKenna said he had found an injured seal on nearby Fox Island shortly before seeing the fin in the water. The lifeguards reported both the injured seal and suspected shark to the marine patrol. McKenna does not know if the seal survived or what might have caused its injury.

Despite the ankle-deep restriction, Popham Beach was busy by midday Thursday. More than a dozen people were in the water close to shore. A small plane could be seen flying overhead.

Cumberland had issued its shark advisory Wednesday afternoon for people visiting Broad Cove Reserve based on a report of a shark in the area, but lifted the warning Thursday morning after learning that a photo and a video widely circulated on Facebook Wednesday and said to be of shark swimming near Cousins Island actually showed a shark seen days earlier near the outer edge of Casco Bay.

Eliza Porter, director of communications for Cumberland, said the advisory was issued out of an “abundance of caution” following reports that photos and videos of a shark were taken near Cousins Island, which is close to the local beach. The town later learned those images were taken last weekend in a different area in the Gulf of Maine.

“This morning we received a report that (the area near Cousins Island) was not where the shark was sighted and it was farther off the coast and was spotted several days ago,” she said.

“The sighting took place off of Drunker’s Ledge, which is between Harpswell and Halfway Rock,” Yarmouth Harbor Master Will Owen said in an update to the community Thursday.

Owen nevertheless urged residents to be cautious.

“While incidents of shark attacks are extremely rare, Harpswell is less than 10 miles away by water and Yarmouth has several areas where swimmers can congregate. Please use good judgment when swimming and recreating in Casco Bay,” he wrote. “Be mindful of potential risks as sharks feed on seals, and seals are present in Cousins Island/Little John Island waters. Avoid areas where seals or large schools of fish are visible or are known to congregate.”

The Department of Marine Resources issued warnings to anyone swimming or using paddle craft, such as kayaks or paddle boards, to avoid areas where there are seals or schools of fish.

The marine patrol asked that any shark sightings be reported to marine patrol officers, including the specific location with GPS coordinates, if possible. Photos and video provided to the marine patrol will help confirm the species of shark.

 

Staff Writer Reuben Schafir contributed to this report. 

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