Visitors at Popham Beach in Phippsburg earlier this month. Great white sharks have been documented this summer around Popham, and the state Department of Marine Resources has also confirmed reports in Casco Bay, notably between Chebeague Island and Harpswell, and near Pemaquid, Rockland and the Kennebunks. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

PHIPPSBURG — Nicole Palmatier waded into the ocean at Popham Beach State Park with her children as they talked and laughed. They were on vacation from western New York and knew of the increase in great white shark sightings along the Maine coast. They read the large warning signs on their way into the beach, but still wanted to enjoy the water safely.

“We never swim that deep,” said Palmatier, who has been visiting Popham Beach since she was a child. “We just go out far enough where there are waves. We’re mindful not to swim out too far, not to wear a wetsuit. We’re not hoping to see one. They are dangerous.”

Popham Beach, along with nearby Seguin and Hermit islands along Maine’s Midcoast, has been a focal point of great white shark activity in Maine since the state started monitoring the species two years ago. Swimmers have taken stock and are staying closer to shore.

A sign alerts visitors to the possible presence of sharks at Popham Beach. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Patrick Sabo of Corinth has been going to Popham for 35 years with his family. He’s already been six times this year. Sabo was never much of an ocean swimmer, he said, and he’s less likely to venture beyond the surf now. It seems to him that others are no longer venturing far from shore, either.

“You go to the beach now and it’s a different feel,” Sabo said in mid-August. “I was there this weekend and there were only four to five people in the deeper stuff. It seems to me there were a lot more people doing that before.”

Maine is one of several states on the East Coast that have seen an increase in great white shark sightings, satellite detections of tagged sharks and even shark attacks on swimmers. And beach-goers are adapting. In Maine and on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, many people are finding ways to enjoy a cool dip without going into the high surf.


“There are sightings (of white sharks) all the way from the Florida Keys all the way up to Passamaquoddy Bay,” said John Chisholm, a former Massachusetts shark biologist of 28 years.


Vigilance about white sharks has heightened since Maine’s first and only documented fatal shark attack, in 2020. The attack occurred off the peninsula next to Popham Beach, on Bailey Island where summer resident Julie Dimperio Holowach was swimming 20 yards from shore in a wetsuit.

Similarly, behaviors began to change on Cape Cod after two shark attacks on swimmers in 2018, including Massachusetts’ first fatal shark attack in 80 years, in Wellfleet. As a result, town officials said, swimmers became more respectful of lifeguards’ calls to clear the water.

“It was hard for a couple of years. People realized they had to pay attention to it. Some resented it,” said Suzanne Grout Thomas, Wellfleet’s director of community service. “But I think people are much more comfortable with the reality now and are still able to enjoy themselves, even while they are aware there might be possible shark activity. I think people are grateful they can go in the water at all and they appreciate the oversight.”

On Cape Cod, several beaches have registered numerous shark sightings or detections this summer via the Sharktivity app operated by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy in Chatham, Massachusetts, which provides information about the location of great white sharks to help keep the public safe. 


North Beach Island in Chatham had at least a dozen confirmed reports of white sharks between July 13 and Aug. 15. Nauset Beach, farther up the Cape, had nine white shark reports and one beach closure during the same period. There were eight beach closures at two beaches in Wellfleet in less than a month because of white shark detections.

Norman Shirley and his daughter Naomi, 6, walk at Popham Beach. It’s unknown how close white sharks in Maine have come to shore, but historical accounts prove they will chase prey into very shallow habitat. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Chisholm, who now works for the New England Aquarium and is the administrator of the conservancy’s app, said because of the app and the social-media reports that result from it, swimmers on the Cape have learned to enjoy the ocean while maintaining a healthy respect for the sharks that live there. But Chisholm worries about beach-goers in Maine.

“One of the things that got to me was how many people were unaware that the sharks in Cape Cod don’t always stay in Cape Cod. They travel all the way up to Canada. Historically, they always did. And just a fraction of the white sharks get tagged,” Chisholm said.

Residents on the Cape say there is not only a greater awareness of great white sharks, but also a growing interest in them.

“I think people definitely have respect for them. They were here first,” said Aliya Bornstein, who works at Tale of the Cod gift shop in Chatham. “It’s kind of become a symbol for Cape Cod. I think people are fascinated by the species. It’s been here so long.”

Visitors at Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg wade through shallow water. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

One widely held misconception, Chisholm said, is that white sharks do not swim close to shore. The Sharktivity app has reported white sharks on the Cape swimming 50 feet off shore. Chisholm said they get as close as 25 feet. It’s where white sharks hunt seals that try to escape predation by hauling out on beaches. 


“You’re sharing habitat with an apex predator. You can still go to the beach and even go in the water. As long as you take appropriate precautions,” Chisholm said.

On Long Island, New York, there have been six confirmed shark attacks on swimmers this summer at state beaches – none resulting in death – said Stephanie Rekemeyer with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. By comparison, there were only 14 non-fatal shark attacks in the previous 100 years, she said.

Rekemeyer said the abundance of Atlantic menhaden off the coast of Long Island may be the reason why, because sharks chase the bait fish. Lifeguards at some beaches this year are using drones or helicopters to identify white sharks near shore.

In Maine, the state Department of Marine Resources has recorded at least 35 confirmed white shark reports this year in the form of sightings, wounded mammals with signs of shark bites, witnessed predation events, and sharks detected via satellite tags, said Matt Davis, a state shark biologist.

Nicole Palmatier, center, of Randolph, New York, wades into the water at Popham Beach with her children, Howie, 6, and Taryn, 16. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The 35 reports confirmed through Wednesday spanned the coast from Kittery to Passamaquoddy Bay. Several were in Casco Bay, notably between Chebeague Island and Harpswell, but there were plenty around Popham, Pemaquid, and Rockland and farther south, around the Kennebunks.

It’s unknown how close white sharks in Maine have come to shore, but historical accounts prove they will chase prey into very shallow water, Davis said.


At Lewis Farm on the road to Popham Beach, Celina Del Castillo Lewis said the tourists who frequent her farm stand all ask about the sharks.

“It has definitely changed the experience. The idea is to just be careful, don’t go too close. My grandchildren are afraid,” Del Castillo Lewis said. “The shark is always in the conversation. But there are more events going on at the beach and that brings people together – yoga, concerts. It’s beautiful. People can still enjoy the beach.”

Many locals love to swim in the ocean, said Kate Thompson, who works at Bisson’s Center Store on the road to Popham Beach. But, Thompson said, most swim parallel to the beach.

“Most of us know that there are sharks in the ocean and we have been aware of that. They follow the seals,” Thompson said. “People still swim. You just don’t want to be out too deep. Even though the sharks are not looking for people. They are looking for the seals.”

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