Maryellen Amendola, right, her daughter Julia, center and Hannah Doak sit at the water’s edge on a beach at the head of Mackerel Cove on Bailey Island in July 2020. Amendola, who has summered on Bailey Island for 20 years, said she and the girls wouldn’t go in the water past their waists, after a shark attack that happened farther out in the cove. Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald

Harpswell will display a flag to warn beachgoers if a shark was spotted nearby in response to the state’s first fatal shark attack off the coast of Bailey Island last summer.

The flag — purple with a white shark silhouette in the middle — will be hoisted in Mitchell Field, Mackerel Cove and Cedar Beach when there is a reported shark sighting within a quarter mile, advising beachgoers to swim at their own risk. The flag will fly until the next day following the reported sighting.

Arthur Howe, Harpswell’s fire administrator and emergency management agent, said the town will deem any report credible because “we don’t have the scientific background or time to validate sightings on a case-by-case basis.”

Harpswell officials have yet to determine what number the public should call if they believe they see a shark.

Howe said the flag isn’t intended to alarm people, but to keep them “aware and educated that we have sharks in our waters.”

Maine state beaches and coastal parks will also adopt the flag this summer, said Gary Best, state park regional manager at the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The shark warning flag is widely used in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which sees more white sharks than Maine, he said.

Jim Britt, communications director with the Maine Dept. of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, holds a new flag that will fly if sharks are detected near Maine beaches, Tuesday, June 1, 2021, at Crescent Beach in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Last summer Maine had its first documented fatal shark attack. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Both Best and Howe said Harpswell and the state started looking for a way to improve public safety on Maine beaches after the state saw its first documented fatal shark attack last year.

Julie Dimperio Holowach, 63, a retired fashion executive and summer resident of Harpswell, died on July 27, 2020 after a shark attacked her while swimming about 20 yards offshore near her home on Bailey Island, the Portland Press Herald reported. The shark was identified as a great white based on tooth fragments.

There were three other reported shark sightings in the week following that attack, the Portland Press Herald reported. One was spotted near Cousins Island in Yarmouth and the Maine Department of Marine Resources received two reports of shark sightings near Popham Beach in Phippsburg. Although marine patrol couldn’t verify the sightings, beachgoers were urged to stay out of the water.

“Sharks aren’t new to the state, but the horrible tragedy last year raised everyone’s awareness,” said Best. “We strive to keep all of our beaches as safe and enjoyable as possible. Water safety and public safety is an evolution and we continue to adapt and improve.”

James Sulkowski, a former University of New England professor and researcher who conducts shark research in Maine and worldwide, said shark sightings could become more frequent in Maine because they’re drawn to the state’s healthy seal population.

“Sharks are looking at how they can eat as much as possible while expending the least amount of energy possible,” Sulkowski said. “Seals are the food source of white sharks, and if there’s a lot of food around, you’re going to undoubtedly have more sharks taking advantage of it.”

Maine is home to eight different species of sharks, including great white sharks — also known as white sharks — which are considered potentially more dangerous to humans because they swim closer to the coast and feed on marine mammals, according to Sulkowski.

To better understand how many sharks are in Maine, the Maine Department of Marine Resources partners with Sulkowski, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy in 2020. The group places acoustic monitoring devices, or “receivers”, which record signals from acoustic transmitters, or “tags”, attached to sharks.

The Department of Marine Resources placed 11 receivers along the coast between Wells and Popham Beach which detected 16 sharks in 2020 between late July and late November, 14 of which were white sharks, according to the department’s website.

Although sharks are present in Maine waters, Sulkowski stressed that shouldn’t deter people from enjoying Maine beaches this summer.

“Globally, there are about 120 shark interactions per year and about 10 are fatal,” said Sulkowski. “People in Maine have a higher chance of being killed by a falling icicle.”

However, he recommended people stay away from seals and avoid swimming at dusk and dawn to lower the chances of a shark interaction.

“Don’t go swimming if you see a seal colony because that’s what sharks eat,” he said. “Humans, the way that we swim, we look like a sick, dying seal. If a shark sees something that looks injured, sharks hone in on that and pick out the weak. If we’re wearing a wetsuit that makes us look more seal-ish, that increases the chances.”

Other than the incident in Harpswell last summer, the only other confirmed shark attack in Maine occurred 10 years ago near Eastport, according to Jeff Nichols, communications director for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

That shark was reported to be an 8-foot porbeagle shark that attacked a diver’s camera, thought to be mistaking the camera for food. The diver was uninjured and able to fend off the shark with his camera and captured the encounter on film.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.