A woman who was swimming off of the coast of a seaside Maine town died Monday afternoon after an apparent shark attack.
Witnesses said the woman had been in the water near Bailey Island in the Casco Bay town of Harpswell, Maine, according to the Maine Marine Patrol, which said the incident would be the state’s first recorded shark attack in a decade.
A spokesman for the agency said he could not immediately locate records of any fatal attacks before Monday. And James Sulikowski, a shark researcher who heads Arizona State University’s Sulikowski Shark and Fish Conservation Lab, said that if the attack is confirmed, it would be the first known incident of its kind in Maine history.
The US Coast Guard launched a small response boat from Portland after receiving word of the possible attack around 3:37 p.m. but turned the boat around after learning that the victim had been returned to land, according to Petty Officer Amanda Wyrick.
Nearby kayakers brought the woman to shore. Paramedics pronounced her dead at the scene, according to the marine patrol.
The identity of the woman is being withheld pending notification of her family.
Sulikowski, who is based in Arizona but has been researching white sharks in Maine in collaboration with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy for years, said there are eight species of sharks found in the waters off Maine, but only the white sharks are known to have attacked people.
When that happens, it’s most likely because the shark has mistaken a human for a seal, he said.
“The shark wasn’t looking to eat this woman,” Sulikowski said by phone Monday night. “It thought it was getting a seal. We’ve never been on their menu. We don’t taste like what they want.”
He said white sharks try to take their prey “by surprise.”
“They come up from below or behind, undetected, and just try to overpower their prey with a ferocious blow,” he said.
On Sunday, researchers from Sulikowski’s team were contacted about a dead seal that had washed on the beach in Phippsburg, near Bailey Island, that had bite marks with a radius of about 19 inches.
Sulikowski said people should avoid areas where they see seals in the water, or the schools of fish that seals feed upon, because sharks could be nearby.
The marine patrol also urged swimmers and boaters to use caution near Bailey Island.
Harpswell is a historic seaside community whose reach includes many islands, more than 200 of which can be reached only by boat. The town is a tourist destination for kayak tours and sailing lessons, and it offers cultural sites including the former summer home of the arctic explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary.
Maine Department of Marine Resources spokesman Jeff Nichols said the agency’s last record of a shark attack came from a diver off the coast of Eastport, Maine, in 2010.
Nichols said the diver in 2010 was swimming near salmon pens, used for cultivating fish, when the shark approached. According to news reports at the time, the diver used his video camera to fend the shark off, and he escaped unharmed.
It’s unclear what kind of shark the diver saw, though he believes it was a porbeagle. Nichols said the Department of Marine Resources is asking lobstermen to alert officials if they see anything that looks like a shark off shore.
Shark attacks in New England are rare. In September 2018, Massachusetts saw its first fatal attack in 82 years, and only the fourth in state history, when 26-year-old Revere resident Arthur Medici was fatally attacked by a shark off Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet.
That attack followed a summer of increased shark sightings, beach closures, and warnings about the danger of the predators. The previous month, Dr. William Lytton, a 61-year-old neurologist from New York, was seriously injured in an attack in Truro.
The state’s last fatal attack before 2018 took place on July 25, 1936, when 16-year-old Joseph C. Troy was attacked off Hollywood Beach in Mattapoisett by a 6-foot shark that seized his left leg and dragged him underwater, according to contemporary accounts.