Remy Matthews, 9, runs from the cold waves while Mason Parlin, 8, far right, and Trent Hutchinson, 8, near right, stand about knee-deep near shore at Reid State Park on Thursday. The park restricted swimming to knee-depth only in response to the fatal shark attack on Monday and possible shark sightings later in the week. Matthews and her mother, Beth, came to the beach for the morning, but didn’t bring their boogie boards like they usually would. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Mainers have often looked at the ocean with a sense of security that people in most coastal states lack.

In nearly 200 years of record-keeping, there was never a documented report of a person being bitten by a shark on the Maine coast – until last week, when a woman was killed by a great white shark off Harpswell.

Interviews with beachgoers, surfers, kayakers and others who enjoy Maine’s cool water during the summer indicate that the relative sense of safety and security enjoyed by visitors to the state’s idyllic coastline may have evaporated, at least in the short term.

“This has really shaken the open-water community,” said Pat Gallant-Charette, a world record-holding long-distance swimmer who lives in Westbrook and regularly trains off the state’s southern coast. “It’s alarming.”

Julie Dimperio Holowach, 63, was killed Monday as she swam near her summer home on Bailey Island. Holowach, who also lived in New York City and Naples, Florida, was killed by a great white, according to scientists who identified the species with the aid of a tooth fragment that was recovered. 

The only other attack in Maine documented by the University of Florida’s global database was in 2010, when a diver in Eastport fended off  an aggressive porbeagle shark with a video camera.

White shark sightings are increasingly common in Maine, though not as regular as at other popular destinations such as Cape Cod. Monday’s attack has heightened awareness of the sharks’ presence, leading to the circulation of photos of sharks and injured seals.

From left, Topsham residents Linda Amundsen, Linda Halperin, Ed Halperin and Jim Amundsen settle in at the beach at Reid State Park. “It’s a freak accident,” Jim Amundsen said about Monday’s shark attack. “You know there’s a possibility of it. That wouldn’t stop me from swimming.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

State officials have restricted access and activity at several beaches along Maine’s coast in light of recent sightings, a move that was motivated by an “abundance of caution.” However, recent shark sightings are not indicative of a sudden convergence of sharks in Maine waters, experts say. Great white sharks have always passed through on their northerly migration in the summer and fall. But it is a sign that they are swimming closer to shore.

“Quite a few of the sharks that we tag off Cape Cod move up into the Gulf of Maine, to the Bay of Fundy, and … up to Halifax,” said Gregory Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. He said that the population of white sharks, of which he has tagged 210 off Cape Cod, can also move as far south as the Gulf of Mexico in the colder months.

James Sulikowski, a shark researcher and former University of New England professor, said the shark in Monday’s attack most likely mistook the victim for a seal, a favorite food of sharks that has grown abundant over the last several decades. The seal population in New England has grown since a 1972 law prohibited killing marine mammals.

And shark populations have rebounded because of a 20-year-old law that protected them from overfishing.

“White sharks have been in Maine waters for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” Sulikowski said. “So they’re here. And the only reason that we’re seeing more of them closer to shore is because of the seals.”

Visiting Maine from Ohio, Elizabeth Arthur watches her children play in the surf at Reid State Park on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Few people in Maine are more sensitive to the risks than Gallant-Charette, who said regular swimmers along the coast have been buzzing over Monday’s fatal attack.

Gallant-Charette routinely takes precautions against encounters with sharks and recalls advice she was given by an Australian swimmer nearly 30 years ago, when she took up long-distance swimming. The fellow swimmer told her not to swim near seals, avoid wearing a wetsuit and make sure to remove shiny jewelry before getting in the water. People in dark wetsuits can look like a seal to a hungry shark and the jewelry can attract a shark’s attention.

Before each swim, Gallant-Charette looks to see if there are schools of fish around and whether birds are diving into the water. The birds, she said, are after schools of fish, which tend to attract bigger fish and sharks.

She also trains in water that’s no deeper than waist-deep, she said. If any of the signs suggest that sharks could be near, Gallant-Charette will switch to a lake or a pool for her training swims.

On Wednesday, she was swimming with a friend who was worried about sharks after the fatal attack two days earlier. Gallant-Charette pulled out a “shark shield,” which is a device that she straps around her ankle and trails a long wire. The wire emits electric signals, which sharks have adapted to perceive.

The signals, Gallant-Charette said, “tickle the shark’s nose” and causes it to turn away and swim off.

Beachgoers start to populate the beach at Reid State Park on Thursday. The park restricted swimming to knee depth only in response to the fatal shark attack on Monday and possible shark sightings later in the week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

More casual beachgoers are also saying they have a heightened awareness of behavior that could attract sharks. Hot weather drove many Mainers to beaches last week, but most visitors who went in the water stayed just on edge of the surf. State officials have posted signs at some beaches saying swimmers should venture no farther than waist-deep in the water.

Dan and Elizabeth Arthur traveled from Ohio to their family’s house in Lincoln County for the summer with their four children, ages 5 to 11.

“We didn’t tell the kids” about the attack, Dan said while watching his children jump in and out of ankle-deep water at Reid State Park on Thursday morning. His children, he said, don’t go very deep anyways, and there was no reason to ruin the experience.

At Popham Beach State Park, Jessica Straight, who was visiting from Philadelphia with her children, said she also chose not to tell her kids of the incident.

“We had been actively paddle boarding and kayaking every morning,” she said. “Now we’re heeding the advice to stay off the water.”

Other visitors had less hesitation.

A sign at Reid State Park in Georgetown alerts beachgoers to precautionary steps taken in the wake of a fatal shark attack earlier in the week. A shark sighting was confirmed off Bailey Island on Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“It’s a freak accident,” said Topsham resident Jim Amundsen while he, his wife and their neighbors sipped coffee at Reid State Park Thursday morning. “You know there’s a possibility of it. That wouldn’t stop me from swimming.”

Nearby, Remy Matthews, 9, ran in and out of the waves as her mother, Beth, sat watching. Beth Matthews is the child of Bath Iron Works employees and grew up visiting Reid. She said she hadn’t ever seen a baby seal until last year, and the news of Monday’s shark attack came as a bit of a shock.

“Today I’m feeling better,” Matthews said. “But we definitely won’t be using any boogie boards.”

At Higgins Beach in Scarborough and beaches in Cape Elizabeth, most swimmers ventured no farther than a few yards from shore, although that wasn’t always because of concerns over sharks.

“It’s not a fear of sharks, it’s the cold,” said Dylan Nelson, a dairy farmer from Derby, Vermont, whose family rents a beach house at Higgins every year.

Nearby, boogie boarders headed out to the breaking surf, where the water was only waist-deep in between waves.

Nalina Robbins, a Californian visiting family in Portland, emerges from the water at Kettle Cove State Park in Cape Elizabeth last week. She was aware of the shark attack, she said, but it didn’t stop her from going swimming. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Paul Andrukonis of Montclair, New Jersey, said he’s normally aware of sharks because they’re a more constant presence off the coast of New Jersey and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where his family also vacations in the summer.

“I’m always leery of it,” Andrukonis said, noting that he boogie boards instead of surfing because he thinks it’s safer.

For some, however, the draw of the water is too strong.

“My love of surfing is greater than my fear of sharks,” said John Lane, a Yarmouth native and a rising senior at Bowdoin College.

At H2Outfitters, the Harpswell-based kayak guiding company that rented the tandem kayak to the vacationing couple who first responded to the incident Monday, daily rentals have resumed after a brief hiatus.

“You can’t stop people from going on the water. You can’t stop people from going in the water. That’s living,” said co-founder Cathy Piffath. “There’s always those chances.”

Piffath, who has seen a dip in rentals and several cancellations since the attack, said they’re advising renters to stay away from seals, stay close to shore and stay close together to reduce the risk of an interaction with a shark.

H2Outfitters also has a dozen children registered for its summer camp and is using the incident as a teaching opportunity as they slowly ease the kids back into the water. Piffath said they taught kids how to raft boats together, which can be useful in choppy water but also makes kayaks look larger and less like a seal.

Children were not allowed in the water the day after the attack, but have been gradually allowed back into shallow water, culminating with a close-to-shore outing down Orr’s Island with Piffath on Friday.

Scott Shea, owner of the Brunswick-based Seaspray Kayak and Paddleboarding, echoed Piffath’s thoughts. He canceled trips last week and this week in the areas where sharks were recently spotted, and is continuing to watch updates closely.

“We look at it like it’s our responsibility to be aware and help the general public make good decisions,” Shea said. “You have to be a little extra cautious at this point. And unfortunately that may mean some loss of business in the short term, but that’s minor compared to another tragedy happening.”

Shea also said he’d like to see more research on white sharks take place in the Gulf of Maine so that he and other water-sport enthusiasts have a clearer sense of the objective hazards.

Beachgoers populate the sand and surf at Reid State Park in Georgetown on Thursday, days after a fatal shark attack just down the coast in Harpswell. As a precaution, park officials had restricted swimming to knee-deep water only, but amended that to waist-deep surf later in the week. The beach’s lagoon remains open. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Although the risk of an attack is difficult to calculate given the ever-changing and highly mobile nature of the white shark population, scientists speculate it has increased, but over a longer time period than some may expect.

“The data sets would indicate that as the (white shark) population is restored, and as seal populations are restored, and this predator-prey relationship happens closer the shore, then risk would increase,” Skomal said. “It’s probably more along the lines of several years, because both of these animals are slow-growing and populations restore slowly.”

Sulikowski said the risk is still relatively easy to mitigate.

“Don’t go swimming where you see seals, don’t go swimming where you see bait balls, don’t go swimming at dawn and dusk, or where you see seals,” he said. “I think that if you can do that, then you should enjoy the beach.”

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