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A frantic rescue effort could not save a great white shark that stranded itself on Whitecrest Beach in Wellfleet on Sunday.
A frantic rescue effort could not save a great white shark that stranded itself on Whitecrest Beach in Wellfleet on Sunday.Bill Galvin

A frantic rescue effort could not save a great white shark that stranded himself on Whitecrest Beach in Wellfleet on Sunday.

The 14-foot adult male washed up alive on the busy beach Sunday morning after apparently failing to navigate the shallows, said Greg Skomal, a shark expert with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

The suffocating shark's plight quickly drew a crowd of beachgoers, who doused him with water and dug a pool around his body in an effort to help him breathe.

Robyn Schnaible of South Portland, Maine, was visiting Cape Cod with her husband and children when they stumbled upon the chaotic scene.

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The Schnaibles usually swim on the bay side of the Cape but decided Sunday to enjoy the waves. When they got to the beach around 10 a.m., they found a crowd of about 100 people — police, lifeguards, wildlife workers, and plenty of vacationers — passing buckets and digging in an effort to return the shark to water.

"They created a little holding pool and dug a trench" before tying a rope to the shark's tail, Schnaible said. Someone paddled out to a boat off shore with the other end of the rope, and the crowd dragged the massive shark down the trench and into the ocean.

"A lot of people were saying, 'Oh my gosh, what are they doing?' But he wasn't feisty that I saw," Schnaible said. Once the shark got out into the water, she said, he went belly up.

Skomal said that saving the animal would have been very difficult, and that it was probably dead before it was returned to the water.

"There's only so much you can do — it's a fish out of water," Skomal said. "They're basically drowning."

Skomal, who performed a necropsy on the shark at the Chatham Fish Pier, said the animal appeared to be otherwise healthy, and he could not determine a cause of death. Injuries visible on the shark's underside appeared to be the result of the stranding; on land, the shark began to bleed internally under its own weight. Skomal said it probably weighed at least 2,000 pounds, but there was no scale on hand that could accommodate its size.

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The shark had not been tagged by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a research and education organization that studies white sharks in the area and assisted in the rescue effort.

Sharks beaching themselves is "very unusual, to say the least," Skomal said. Sunday's incident was probably the result of the shark's becoming confused in the shallows close to shore. It was the second great white to turn up alive on a Cape Cod beach this summer.

In July, a young 7½-foot male was successfully saved using a similar process. That shark has since been spotted several times offshore.

Schnaible, who shot video of the rescue attempt on Sunday, said she had never seen a shark in the wild before.

"We did go swimming right afterwards with our toddlers," Schnaible said. "But I was hesitant to walk too far in."

Watch the rescue attempt:


Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.