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‘It’s all so surreal’: An ordinary swim in Maine became fatal shark attack

Tom Whyte pointed to the area where he witnessed the apparent shark attack which killed his neighbor as she swam in the waters off of Bailey Island, Maine.
Tom Whyte pointed to the area where he witnessed the apparent shark attack which killed his neighbor as she swam in the waters off of Bailey Island, Maine.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

HARPSWELL, Maine — Spend any morning on the sandy main road of Bailey Island this summer and you’d likely run into Julie Dimperio Holowach. The vivacious 63-year-old would flash a smile like you were an old friend and continue walking, up and down the undulating sleepy roads of Harpswell, past lanes that dead-end at the water’s edge and bays filled with lobster traps.

Dimperio Holowach sought reprieve from the unusually hot weather Monday afternoon by jumping off a dock into the cool Atlantic waters at the edge of Mackerel Cove. From his second-story office, Tom Whyte watched as the woman and her adult daughter swam about 15 yards from the rocky shore.

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Suddenly Whyte saw one of the swimmers fall behind, then sink below the water, her arms flailing. The other looked back to check on her companion and saw something that prompted her to swim back to shore at breakneck speed. Once on land, she fell to her knees and screamed for help. Whyte and other neighbors rushed to her aid. She was uninjured, but the other swimmer floated at sea, apparently lifeless and injured.

A million scenarios shot through Whyte’s mind, he said. But never the one that authorities later reported: a great white shark had bitten the woman, who was later identified as Dimperio Holowach, in the first recorded fatal attack by a shark in the state of Maine and the third in New England since 1936.

A sea of sirens roared down Harpswell Island Road in the minutes after the attack. By the time the ambulances arrived, Dimperio Holowach had been brought ashore. The paramedics pronounced her dead.

The bewildering event has shaken the idyllic Maine island, which has a permanent population of under 400 and seemed far removed from the wild tragedies making headlines this year. The waters were calm and the skies blue Tuesday morning, but the conversations between the islanders were marked by shock and horror at the loss of such a vibrant life in such extraordinary circumstances.

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“It’s all so surreal,” said Whyte, looking out at the three lobster trap buoys where the attack had occurred. He had swum for the first time in two years just yards away from those buoys, two days prior.

Great white shark expert Greg Skomal used a left-behind tooth fragment to confirm suspicions that the fearsome apex predator was to blame for the attack.

Skomal said people tend to think of Cape Cod as being the northernmost feeding grounds for great white sharks since it’s typically where sightings and predations are reported by the general public and the media — especially during the busy summer months.

But tagging data show great whites travel much farther than that, he said, often using Cape Cod as “a rest stop on a major highway, as they move into northern parts” in search of seals, their preferred food source.

“Some stay around Cape Cod and feed. Others will stop by for varying amounts of time and keep moving into the Gulf of Maine where there are ample amounts of seals,” he said.

Nick Whitney, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, suspected that the shark mistook Dimperio Holowach, who wore a wetsuit, for a seal. A day earlier, on Sunday, a seal with a 19-inch-wide bite mark, likely from a great white shark, washed ashore in Phippsburg, which is roughly 7 miles by boat from Mackerel Cove.

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Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said in a press conference Tuesday that he didn’t think beach closures around Harpswell were necessary “because of the rarity of the event.”

For all the attention paid to sharks in recent years, attacks on humans remain rare. In September 2018, a 26-year-old college student from Revere, Mass., was attacked by a suspected great white shark while body-boarding off Wellfleet and died after making it back to shore. Before that, a 16-year-old was killed off Mattapoisett in July 1936.

Dimperio Holowach was a seasonal resident of Harpswell who lived with her husband in a home near the island’s shore and split time between Maine and Florida. She retired as an executive of the behemoth outdoor apparel company VF Corp. in 2016, first joining the company in 2000 as president of special markets for the Liz Claiborne brand and then becoming president of Kipling North America, which makes bags and accessories, in 2006. She remained in that position until leaving the company, Women’s Wear Daily reported. Most recently, she served on the board of Sea Bags, a Maine-based eco-friendly accessories company.

Friends, colleagues, and neighbors all painted the same portrait of Dimperio Holowach as a civic-minded and active woman who loved Bailey Island and the community it offered.

Maine state Representative Joyce “Jay” McCreight, whose district includes Harpswell, said she met Dimperio Holowach through a book group on the islands and had run into her at other social events in the past.

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”I sent out a message to make sure members of the book group know [what happened], and messages are flooding in about her being a wonderful asset to the community, and member of the community, and a person who was really, really liked,” McCreight said. “She was a person that you feel like you knew well because she was so outgoing.”

Elizabeth “Buff” Harrington, of Arizona, met Dimperio Holowach several years ago while summering in Harpswell.

“She participated in life to the nth degree, but way more than that she was helping people all of the time and supporting them. I just can’t say enough good things about her,” said Harrington, who rang in her 80th birthday last fall at an extravagant surprise party thrown by Dimperio Holowach at her home on the island.

Harrington said it was so detailed and exquisite, it felt like a wedding: a private event for 20 close friends, featuring a five-course meal, and Harrington’s favorite flowers on display.

The last time she saw Dimperio Holowach was shortly after the surprise bash, but she had heard from her frequently after Harrington’s husband passed away in May.

"She would call me every week to make sure I was OK," she said. "I just want [people] to know what a wonderful, wonderful person she was and how much she will be missed. She supported people. She was there for everybody."

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Mackerel Cove Beach was empty Tuesday morning save for a few visitors from Brunswick, who had yet to hear about the shark attack.

The lobstermen hauling in the morning’s bounty at the nearby Glen’s Lobster said they were told to keep an eye out for sharks but said such sights were incredibly rare.

Meanwhile, a couple from New York, who heard the sirens Monday, shook their heads as they noted with dismay that the horrors of this particularly strange year had followed them to vacation.

Emily Sweeney and Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Tom Whyte witnessed the apparent shark attack that killed his neighbor as she swam in the waters off Bailey Island.
Tom Whyte witnessed the apparent shark attack that killed his neighbor as she swam in the waters off Bailey Island. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff


A view of the dock where Tom Whyte said he watched his neighbor and her daughter get into the water.
A view of the dock where Tom Whyte said he watched his neighbor and her daughter get into the water. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff


An undated photo of Julie Dimperio Holowach.
An undated photo of Julie Dimperio Holowach. Facebook



Hanna can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @hannaskrueger. Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.