Expert Reveals What Probably Led to Deadly Great White Shark Attack

Arizona State University professor James Sulikowski was already studying sharks in Maine before Monday's Bailey Island attack

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James Sulikowski had been studying sharks off Maine when a white shark killed a swimmer, the state's first deadly shark attack ever.

The Arizona State University professor spoke to us in video and podcast interviews to explain what we know about sharks in this area, how people can stay safe when swimming in the ocean and what likely led to Monday's attack.

Monday's shark attack killed Julie Dimperio Holowach, 63, of New York City, officials said. The shark fatally bit Holowach off Bailey Island on Monday while she was swimming with her daughter, who was not hurt.

"It was so unexpected it took everyone by crazy surprise," Sulikowski said. "How do you handle something like this?"

Scientists were able to later identify the shark as a great white using a tooth fragment, state officials said. Great whites aren’t common in Maine, which is the northern tip of their range, but recent summers have brought reports of sightings of the giant fish.

Sulikowski said there have always been white sharks in Maine, for hundreds and probably thousands of years. But there's never been an attack like this before.

A woman was killed by a shark Monday in Maine.

So what happened on Monday?

"That's the million dollar question right now," Sulikowski said. "If you look at the historical behaviors of white sharks and seals, it's that classic predator-prey. They're always looking for a good meal. What tends to happen is white sharks are looking for [seals] that are dying, loners, not acting normally. Here comes a human being swimming in an area where there's a seal colony, where there's seals swimming around, and we as human beings in a wetsuit swimming sort of resemble an injured or sick seal, so we're an easy target."

He said white sharks are all about feeding.

"They're moving through the water and they're moving like a Mack truck. That Mack truck has teeth," Sulikowski said. "They're looking to incapacitate, knock out that prey item. Most likely, that's what happened. You have a person in the wrong place at the wrong time and was the victim of a predation event."

Julie Dimperio Holowach was swimming with her daughter off Harpswell's Bailey Island when she was attacked.

So what can people do to stay safe?

"That's probably the second million dollar question," he said. "There's no one thing we can tell anybody to do. But what we can do is tell people it comes down to what your personal risk levels are and the steps you can take in order to reduce those."

Some tips include:

  • Staying away from hot spots for shark activity where there are lots of seals
  • Staying away from large bait balls that draw seal activity
  • Don't go swimming at dawn and dusk
  • Trying not to swim alone
  • Staying in shallow water

"Those are all things you can do to reduce your chance of risk of anything happening," Sulikowski said. "But the reality is we're not on their menu. They don't want to eat us. If you can keep that in mind, you'll be able to enjoy the beach. You have a better chance of being struck by lightning."

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