Authorities confirmed Tuesday that a New York City woman was attacked and killed by a great white shark off the coast of Harpswell earlier this week. It’s the first recorded fatal shark attack in the state’s history.
Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher identified the victim as 63-year-old Julie Dimperio Holowach of New York City, who was swimming in a wetsuit with her daughter about 60 feet off Bailey Island when she was attacked by a great white shark. Kayakers spotted them and quickly paddled out and brought Holowach to shore, where she was pronounced dead.
“In the face of that type of situation, the fact that they were able to kayak into that area and help to bring the body back to shore was nothing short of miraculous. And we certainly thank them, sincerely thank them,” he says.
Keliher says the agency consulted with Greg Skomal, a shark expert in Massachusetts, and recovered a fragment of a tooth.
“And with that fragment, Mr. Skomal was able to positively identify this as a great white shark,” he says.
Keliher says Holowach was wearing a wetsuit, which could have made her resemble a seal.
Holowach was well-known to the local community, says Maine Marine Patrol Major Robert Beal, and her family would spend four or five months each year at their property nearby.
“And, in fact, Julie and her husband, are just well-known, very respected individuals. And the community is really at a tough juncture in trying to process yesterday’s event,” he says.
“Nothing like that’s ever happened anywhere in Maine. Especially not so close to home,” says Cathy Piffath, the co-owner of H2 Outfitters, a tour and kayak rental service on nearby Orr’s Island. “Nobody really knew what to think. It’s put a damper on things. Still kind of digesting all the information.”
Piffath says she was in the water, teaching a class, when she heard sirens on Monday. She says when she got to the scene of the attack later that afternoon, she learned that her company had rented a tandem kayak to the two nearby rescuers who brought Holowach to shore.
“You never know how people are going to react in a situation like that. If you freeze, or if you act. And they just immediately acted. They thought they had to do something — they just had to get her to shore," she says.
Piffath says the woman in the front of the kayak grabbed the hand of the woman in the water and held her head up while paddling to shore.
Her co-owner, Jeff Cooper, says he quickly headed down to local Cedar Beach to alert local swimmers and get them quickly out of the water. He says his company decided to cancel any rentals on Tuesday and also decided to move its local day camp onto land for the time being.
“And common sense would say, if there’s a predator on the loose in its own environment, we need to be aware of that, and respectful of it, to a high degree. I think that means changing the protocols of what goes on,” he says.
While state authorities stressed that the attack was rare, they also have increased monitoring in the area and have yet to see any sharks. The Department of Marine Resources is urging anyone in the water in the Casco Bay region to avoid areas with seals and schools of fish, which can attract sharks. And the state’s agriculture department is also restricting swimming at all of the state park beaches to waist-level or below.
This story was updated at 5:03 p.m. Tuesday, July 28, 2020.