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When he saw the dorsal fin, he froze. He didn’t know what else to do.

Devon Zimmerman had been out on the water off Nauset Beach on his surfboard for only a short time Friday when he heard a noise disturb the
early-morning calm.

“I had very literally just gone through the surf and was laying on my board between sets, and you know, there was this eerie quietness to it and then I heard this rustling in the water,” said the 30-year-old Brooklyn resident. “So I looked over my shoulder and thought maybe it was a seal emerging.”

But Zimmerman, who was visiting his wife’s family on Cape Cod before heading to a weekend wedding, quickly realized it wasn’t a seal’s cute whiskered face — it was the pointy fin of a great white shark.

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“It didn’t really register to me until I saw the dorsal fin pop up, and then it was this kind of immediate shock,” he said. “There was nothing I could do other than let it swim past me. I froze on my board, and then lifted my feet out of the water and just waited. And fortunately — very fortunately — it just kept on swimming.”

As soon as the coast seemed clear, Zimmerman said, he quickly paddled his board back toward the shore, trying to not make too much noise or splash too much for fear of drawing attention to himself.

Once on land, he approached a group of people who had witnessed the encounter. One of those people, Joe Mault, had captured the entire incident on camera.

“I walked up to them and said, ‘Did you guys just see that?’ And Joe said, ‘I did. I got it all on film,’ and then he showed me the photograph,” said Zimmerman. “That’s when it registered more.”

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Mault told the Globe Friday he had been out early in the morning along the public portion of Nauset Beach in Orleans, hoping to snap some photographs of the waves kicked up by Humberto, a storm far out in the Atlantic.

Not long into his excursion, he spotted Zimmerman suiting up. He turned his camera to the surfer and started snapping away, trying to catch him as he caught a wave.

Instead, Mault said, he noticed a ripple in the water. Then the fin appeared. He kept shooting.

“It was within feet of him,” Mault, owner of Orleans Camera, said Friday.

Later, with Zimmerman’s permission, Mault shared the image with the Orleans Department of Public Works and Natural Resources, which posted it to Facebook with a warning to beachgoers that it’s peak great white season; and the nonprofit Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, which delivered a similar message on social media.

The image of Zimmerman casting a glance over his shoulder in the direction of the dorsal fin went viral by Friday afternoon and was picked up by news outlets across the country.

“It certainly added to the surreal nature of the whole experience to watch this whole thing go from seeing a photograph of it to being at a wedding and people saying, ‘I saw you on the national news,’ ” he said. “It only just adds to this disbelief of the whole situation that it has happened like this. None of it feels real.”

Zimmerman said after the close call he reached out to his wife, Sarah, to tell her what had happened. Her first reaction, he said, was one of shock. Later, when he showed her the viral image, which Mault had printed out for him, she was aghast.

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“When I showed her, she said, ‘This makes me sick,’ ” said Zimmerman, a Los Angeles native.

During the drive to Maine Friday, Zimmerman’s mind kept going back to the scene that had unfolded that morning.

“It’s difficult to explain. On the one hand, it feels cinematic the way it happened, just the fin emerging and then dipping back into the water,” he said. “It was almost like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is real, that’s a real shark.’ ”

He said one thing in particular stuck out in his mind as he replayed the scene: the massive size of the apex predator.

“It’s indescribable. I feel like, on our drive up to Maine, all I could keep saying to myself was ‘It’s just so big,’ ” he said. “You don’t actually get a sense of its scale. It’s just an awesome animal in sort of the most terrifying way.”

As for surfing? Zimmerman isn’t letting what happened get in the way of a hobby he’s loved since he was a teenager. In fact, he surfed later in the weekend in Maine.

And this week, Zimmerman, who is still on the Cape visiting his wife’s family, said if the conditions are right he’ll hit the water again Wednesday.

But this time, he’ll stay away from Cape Cod.

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“I might go to Rhode Island instead,” he said.


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com.