Tom Whyte said he was working from his second-floor office overlooking the island’s Mackerel Cove when he saw two people go swimming on an unusually hot Monday afternoon.
He watched as the duo laughed and paddled north about 20 yards from shore, one in a black suit and the other in a blue one-piece swimsuit. Then the person wearing the wetsuit dived underwater, waving his arms.
The other looked back, saw her partner emerge from the water, and quickly swam back to shore, where she stepped ashore and screamed for help. Neighbors ran to her aid. She was not injured.
A million scenarios flashed through Whyte’s mind, he said. But never the one that authorities later reported: A shark had apparently fatally attacked the woman in the wetsuit, which was later identified as Dimperio Holowach, in what would be the first recorded shark attack in a decade.
After the other woman reached the shore, she dropped to her hands and knees and screamed for help. Neighbors ran to her aid. She was not injured.
The United States Coast Guard launched a small response boat from Portland after receiving news of the attack at 3:37 pm, but turned around after learning that the injured woman had been brought ashore.
A kayak approached the floating woman, but she was clearly distressed and unable to help, Whyte said, and the woman floated to shore. She was pronounced dead by paramedics who arrived on the scene.
Tragedy has rocked the idyllic island on the outskirts of Brunswick, where nearly all roads lead to dead ends, lobster traps crowd the cold blue waters, and American flags wave in coastal winds.
“It is all very surreal,” Whyte said, shaking his head.
Neighbors described Dimperio Holowach as a seasonal resident of the sleepy island that has a population of less than 400 year-round. She could be seen almost every morning at this time of year walking or jogging on the island’s main road. She resided in a house on Elden Point Road and used a neighbor’s floating dock in Mackerel Cove to access the water, said Marie Schmon, another island resident.
Schmon described Dimperio Holowach as a “welcoming, warm and civic minded” woman who “always had a smile on her face” and “took exercise more seriously than the rest of us.” Monday’s attack reportedly occurred in the waters outside Schmon’s home on White Sails Lane.
Suspicions in the attack immediately turned to the great white shark, a fearsome apex predator whose population has been increasing off the Massachusetts coast.
Officials from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that works with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to study, track and tag great targets on the state’s shoreline, expressed sympathy Tuesday in a Facebook post by the Holowach family.
“First of all, our deepest condolences to the loved ones of the woman who lost her life in Harpswell,” the group said.
According to the conservative organization, although large sightings of great white sharks are “relatively rare” in the region where the woman was killed, they are not unknown.
“White sharks have long been known to be seasonal inhabitants of the Gulf of Maine, and have been observed hunting seals and porpoises in Maine’s coastal waters,” the conservation said. “Sighting data, catch records, and tagging data indicate that white sharks occur in the region from early summer to fall.”
The group said they will continue to collaborate with various agencies to “expand our knowledge of white sharks in these areas and, through outreach, help promote public safety.”
Greg Skomal, a senior fishery scientist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the state’s top shark expert, said in an email Tuesday morning that he was working closely with the state of Maine to collect more data on the incident .
Nick Whitney, chief scientist at the New England Aquarium, said it’s not uncommon for great white sharks to swim off the coast of Maine, but it’s rare that they attack people.
“They go from the Maine coast to Nova Scotia. Its range is broader than we thought, “she said.
An individual shark can migrate from Nova Scotia to Florida, and then roam the Keys to the Gulf of Mexico over the course of a year, he said.
Monday’s incident is the first deadly shark attack on the Maine coast that he knows of.
Whitney noted that two shark attacks, one of them fatal, occurred in the waters of Cape Cod in 2018. That August, a 61-year-old New York man was bitten by a shark in Truro and survived. Then in September, a 26-year-old Revere man died after being bitten by a shark while sailing in the waters off Wellfleet.
“Last year we had none, and we hope that this year we have none,” he said.
Whitney said she was unaware of the details of Monday’s incident, but from the news reports she has seen so far, it appeared that it was a great shark that “produced a fatal bite,” meaning that a great white shark was the likely culprit. Unless there is evidence suggesting otherwise.
“It is possible that the shark mistook the swimmer for a seal … or was investigating,” he said. “Occasionally they will investigate with their mouths. Even a small white shark research bite can be fatal. But I have no idea if this was the case [in Monday’s incident]. “
Whitney said that while there may be less media coverage of shark sightings this summer, that does not mean there are fewer sharks in the water. “They are definitely around this year, I am not aware of any difference in shark activity,” he said. We probably haven’t seen that many stories about them because with the pandemic, there have been many other stories to cover. “
Back in Harpswell, residents and visitors paused periodically during their morning walks on the island’s sandy roads on Tuesday morning to discuss the horrors of the previous day.
The Barnes family from Orchard Park, New York, walked down Harpswell Island Road, which runs through Bailey Island, around 8 a.m. and marveled at how creepy they were swimming when they heard and sent ambulances roaring south yesterday afternoon. .
Whyte said he swam in the bay for the first time in two years this past weekend.
“This just doesn’t happen,” said Dave Barnes, who stays at his mother’s home on the island every summer with his family.
The Mackerel Cove beach was empty, save for some Brunswick visitors, who had not yet heard of the shark attack, and both immediately referenced the movie “Shark” when they realized what had happened.
The nearby lobster fishermen at Glen’s Lobster, who were busy hauling the morning bounty, expressed the same surprise about the incident, noting that they rarely, if ever, see sharks while on their morning cruise.
A New York couple, who heard sirens on Monday, shook their heads, admitting that the horrors of this particularly strange year had followed them on vacation.
Hanna can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on twitter @hannaskrueger. Steve Annear can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @steveannear. Emily Sweeney can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.