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‘Complete chaos’: Massachusetts boy reeled in a great white shark while fishing off the Florida coast

“I would have loved to catch a tuna or a cobia, but I never expected a great white.”

Mass. boy reels in great white shark
Campbell Keenan, 12, reeled in a great white shark while on a fishing trip off the south coast of Florida. (Video courtesy of Colleen Keenan)

Until this week, the biggest fish that young Campbell Keenan had reeled in was a glistening striper measured at 25 inches, which required some serious arm strength to wrestle from the water.

But that’s a small fry in comparison to the catch the 12-year-old made off the south coast of Florida on Tuesday afternoon: a great white shark estimated at 11 feet long and at least 400 pounds.

“A whole lot more than him,” joked his mom, Colleen Keenan, 44, who was with Campbell.

Amid cries of excitement on the boat, Campbell pulled in the apex predator after a nearly 45-minute struggle during a fishing trip about a mile off Fort Lauderdale with his mom.


After a last-minute change in plans, the mother and son from Southampton, a small town near Springfield, almost didn’t go on the sport fishing trip. But now, it’s one they won’t soon forget.

“I would have loved to catch a tuna or a cobia, but I never expected a great white,” said Campbell, who was in Florida with his family to watch his sister compete in an ice hockey tournament and visit relatives.

After leaving the marina around 8 a.m., Campbell had been out on the water for about two hours when he felt his heavy rod lurch forward as something clamped down on the black fin tuna he was using for bait, taking out about “300 yards of drag,” he said. They thought it might be a sailfish, known as the fastest fish in the ocean.

“Once I reeled it up enough to see what it was, we could determine it was a shark,” Campbell said. Everyone on board — including the captain — began screaming.

“It was just complete chaos on the boat,” Colleen said.

In a battle of wills, Campbell fought to keep the shark on the line and reel it in. Although Campbell had the pole connected to him, he wasn’t strapped into the boat, Colleen said. To keep her son from toppling overboard, she and a friend kept a firm grip on him.


“A lot of sweat,” Colleen said. “Because we’re trying to make sure he didn’t fall in, but then when the shark got really close, you know, you don’t want to stick your hand down next to a great white.”

On at least two occasions, Campbell said he felt like he was “about to pass out” from exertion.

“It was a lot of back and forth,” he said. “I reeled him in a good amount, and then he slowly took out line. It happened about four or five times until I finally got him to the boat, but it was really exhausting.”

Finally, he pulled it onto the boat. After it was tagged for research, Campbell named the shark “Jan Jan” — after his sister’s coach, Janice Yang, also onboard — and it was released back into the ocean.

At the top of his mind during the whole experience? “My friends are gonna be crazy,” Campbell said.

He was right. His friends have been congratulating him left and right, and the video of him reeling in the great white, which the captain later told him is rarer “than a hole-in-one,” has exploded online, with one clip picking up thousands of views.

Even though the Keenan family vacations in Cape Cod — shark central in Massachusetts — every summer, Colleen said it was still hard to fathom how close they were to the great white.


“To see one next to the boat was kind of my worst nightmare,” Colleen said. Campbell agreed: “It was scary.”

“We have a lot of respect for them. Even more so now. But I guess it just makes you realize that they’re always out there,” Colleen said. “Even if you’re in Florida.”

Campbell, who has long enjoyed casting a line with his friends and grandpa, said he will “definitely” be going on more fishing trips in the future, “even if I don’t catch another shark.”

“I just love fishing,” he said. Still, this catch might take a bit to sink in.

“It hasn’t really processed that I caught a great white,” Campbell said.

Shannon Larson can be reached at shannon.larson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shannonlarson98.