Shark reports close beaches, chum up media
A confirmed sighting of a large shark off South Beach in Edgartown and a report of two large great white sharks off Bend in the Road Beach, which later proved to be false, set off a wave of beach closings on the Vineyard amid considerable confusion and rumors Thursday of last week.
Not surprisingly, reports that connected a big shark to Martha's Vineyard proved to be the equivalent of a plump seal floating in front of a hungry great white - irresistible.
The story appeared in news reports across the country and the world. Most included as many references to the movie Jaws, including dialogue borrowed from the film, as editors could manage.
The blockbuster summer movie filmed 30 years on Martha's Vineyard about a shark terrorizing a small coastal community did much to shape the popular view of swimming in the ocean at night and link the Island to great whites, a species known to appear occasionally in these waters.
A headline in the Monday edition of Metro, a London-based daily that targets commuters in a number of British cities, said, "Jaws stalks his old hunting grounds."
A headline in the Friday Boston Globe was less celluloid. "Shark fears prompt beach closure on Martha's Vineyard," it said.
The first public notice that Edgartown beaches were closed was made in the form of a news report on radio station WMVY at noon on Thursday. Initial calls made by The Times to Island officials in an effort to see what all the fuss was about turned up a story that resembled the fish stories Vineyarders tell one another - short on facts and long on hyperbole.
As near as The Times could determine, Thursday morning several lifeguards at South Beach, which fronts the Atlantic Ocean, saw a large fin in the water.
Geof Smith, a pilot with Classic Aviators, a tour company based at Katama airfield, also reported seeing a very large shark. He said it was a great white.
Photo by Alex Bell
About the same time Michael A. Lopenzo, 60, of Boston began telling people at Bend in the Road Beach he had seen two great white sharks. Those reports later turned out to be false and Edgartown Police later said they planned to charge Mr. Lopenzo with disturbing the peace.
Interestingly, the officer who investigated Mr. Lopenzo's claims was Jonathan Searle. As a youngster Mr. Searle was cast as an extra in Jaws. He was the boy who scared the bejesus out of beachgoers with a fake fin.
Dennis Arnold of the Edgartown park and recreation department called the communications center to report the sightings.
Unconfirmed reports of sharks spread around the Island amid considerable confusion.
There were reports that Lucy Vincent Beach in Chilmark was closed. The Chilmark police said it was not.
A lifeguard who asked not to be identified said beach officials received an unconfirmed report of a shark sighting off nearby Abel's Hill Beach. A red flag was hoisted at Lucy Vincent as a signal that swimmers should use extreme caution.
Marilyn Wortman, Edgartown parks and recreation administrator, said Edgartown Harbormaster Charlie Blair saw a shark off Bend in the Road Beach. Reached by The Times, Mr. Blair said he hadn't seen a shark anywhere.
Mr. Arnold said one of his lifeguards received a call from a Tisbury lifeguard that a large shark and two smaller sharks entered the channel to Tashmoo Pond from Vineyard Sound.
Fred LaPiana, Tisbury department of public works director, closed Tashmoo Beach to swimming, based on a report from harbormaster Jay Wilbur. Mr. LaPiana said he knew nothing about a lifeguard seeing a shark and had it happened he would know about it.
County manager Russell Smith heard the news about Bend in the Road and contacted sheriff Mike McCormack. Soon sheriff's deputies were patrolling State Beach telling people not to go in the water.
Oak Bluffs police launched their own boat patrol along the beach. The presence of a Coast Guard boat off State Beach spawned reports that the Coast Guard was involved, that they had seen the shark and had closed the beach. None of that turned out to be true and the vessel was there on a routine patrol unrelated to any shark business.
Various state agencies sent up planes. The patrols spotted no sharks only sea turtles.
By contrast, The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), the conservation agency that manages Norton Point Beach and beaches along Chappaquiddick, took no action to close beaches but did advise swimmers of the sightings. Chris Kennedy, TTOR regional superintendent, said sharks were not uncommon along the south shore. "My first question was who saw it, and was it confirmed," said Mr. Kennedy. "The reality is that we have a lot of sharks."
By Friday the frenzy had subsided. Lifeguards at popular South Beach entered the water for their regular morning drills, said Ms. Wortman. "All is calm today," she reported to The Times.
On Thursday the town posted signs that said "Warning, shark sighting no swimming."
On Friday morning the signs were removed. The job did not take long, thanks to souvenir hunters. "We put up 20, and 14 got stolen," Ms. Wortman said.
Yesterday, the latest shark news concerned a young female great white that had washed up on Nantucket. Island-based marine biologist and state shark expert Greg Skomal said he was preparing to examine the shark when The Times reached him.
Mr. Skomal reiterated what he has said in the past. While not common, great whites can be found in the waters surrounding Martha's Vineyard and large sharks occasionally come close to shore.