Julie Dimperio Holowach, a 63-year-old seasonal resident of Harpswell, Maine, died Monday afternoon after she was attacked by a great white shark while swimming off of Bailey Island in what officials said was the state’s first fatal shark attack on record.
Here’s what we know about the incident so far.
How the attack happened
Dimperio Holowach and her daughter were swimming about 20 yards off Bailey Island when Dimperio Holowach was attacked by a great white shark at 3:26 p.m., officials said at a Tuesday press conference.
Tom Whyte, one of Dimperio Holowach’s neighbors, told the Globe Tuesday that he watched from his second-story office as the two women jumped off a dock and swam out from the shore near Mackeral Cove. Whyte said he saw one of the women fall behind, then sink below the water as her arms flailed. Dimperio Holowach’s daughter looked back and quickly swam to shore, Whyte said.
He said he saw Dimperio Holowach’s daughter drop to her knees and scream for help once she was on land.
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said at Tuesday’s press conference that Dimperio Holowach’s daughter was not injured.
Dimperio Holowach was wearing a wetsuit when she was swimming, Keliher said at the press conference. In speaking with Greg Skomal, senior scientist with the Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries and a great white shark expert, Keliher said he learned “anyone wearing anything dark could mimic a seal,” which sharks would prey on for food.
“Again though, it’s not something we ever would have considered in Maine waters as far as wearing that type of a wetsuit,” Keliher added.
What shark experts say about the attack
Shark attacks on people are rare, but the presence of great white sharks in New England is not.
People tend to think of Cape Cod as being the northern-most feeding ground for great whites, but they travel much further than that, according to Skomal. Sharks often use the Cape as a “rest stop on a major highway as they move into northern parts” in search of seals, Skomal said.
Sharks rarely attack humans, and when they do, it’s usually because they are confused or curious, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Skomal said while experts don’t know “what’s going on in the brain of the shark,” the fatal incident off of Bailey Island could have been the result of mistaken identity.
Great whites primarily prey on seals and other marine mammals, populations of which only began rebounding since the passing of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. Before that, the hunting and killing of seals was so widespread that populations became extinct, according to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. With the resurgence of seal numbers since 1972, sharks have returned to waters in search of a steady food supply.
In addition to laws protecting marine life, there are also relatively recent laws protecting sharks. White sharks were designated as a protected species in most federal waters in 1997 and in Massachusetts state waters in 2005, according to the conservancy.
Skomal said there’s no empirical evidence to suggest that the presence of sharks off the coast of Maine has anything to do with a changing climate, and the sharks are not “going North more.”
“I understand that reaction, I really do, but that’s not the case,” he said. “Remember, climate change is a relatively recent phenomenon, and we’ve got plenty of records showing that white sharks move up to these northern latitudes in the summer.”
What we know about the victim
Officials said Dimperio Holowach and her family owned property on Bailey Island and spent “four to five months” there every year.
Her neighbors told the Globe she split her time between Florida and the island.
Dimperio Holowach was a fashion industry executive who retired in 2016, Women’s Wear Daily reported. She joined apparel and footwear company VF Corp. in 2000 as president of special markets for the Liz Claiborne brand. In 2006, she was promoted to president of Kipling North America, which makes bags and accessories, and remained in that position until leaving the company, according to WWD.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Julie. She was an incredible leader who brought out the best in her team and colleagues. She will be missed by our industry, our company, and as a friend to so many. Our thoughts are with her family at this time,” a spokesperson for Kipling Americas told the Globe in an e-mail.
Dimperio Holowach also was on the board of Sea Bags, a Maine-based accessories company.
Maine Marine Patrol Major Rob Beal, said at Tuesday’s news conference, “I’m close with the Harpswell community. It’s a really tight-knit coastal community, kind of iconic to Maine’s waterfront. And, in fact, Julie and her husband are very well-known, very respected individuals, and the community is at a tough juncture trying to process yesterday’s event.”
What is Bailey Island
Bailey Island sits at the end of a peninsula that juts into Casco Bay. It is part of the town of Harpswell in Cumberland County, Maine. The island is connected to mainland Harpswell by a historic cribstone bridge. It has a year-round population of about 400 people.
Keliher said in a press conference that he didn’t think beach closures around Harpswell were necessary “because of the rarity of the event.”
The only other confirmed shark attack in Maine waters occurred 10 years ago near Eastport, and the shark was reported to be a porbeagle, according to Keliher.
Beal said the area immediately around Bailey Island is being monitored and asked the community to record sightings to their local marine patrol officer. “We have field staff both on the water in the immediate area and also conducted a flight stretching between Casco Bay to Sheepskin Bay where we did not observe any sharks present in the area,” Beal said Tuesday.
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