Fishermen spot great white feeding off Martha’s Vineyard

Three Martha’s Vineyard fishermen spotted a large great white shark circling a dead whale tangled in lobster gear early Friday morning. The sighting took place about a mile off Gay Head, the westernmost end of the Island .

Environmental Police and federal officials from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute responded to the report. They towed he carcass of a small minke whale to Woods Hole and to a laboratory where biologists will examine the body.

Fishermen Jeff Lynch of Chilmark and Will Farrissey and Mike Capen of Oak Bluffs left Menemsha Harbor about 6 am in Mr. Lynch’s 23-foot Sea Ox center console boat to fish for mackerel.

Mr. Lynch said he spotted the whale carcass floating in lobster gear. He reported the sighting to the Coast Guard and decided to take a closer look. “The next thing I saw, there was like a 20-foot great white,” Mr. Lynch told The Times in a telephone conversation Friday morning.

Mr. Lynch, a 28-year-old commercial fisherman, took photos of the shark and emailed them to Greg Skomal, Division of Marine Fisheries shark specialist. Mr. Skomal positively identified the shark as a great white from the photographs.

Friday morning the fishermen put off their pursuit of mackerel to watch the shark. “We sat there and watched it for about a half an hour,” Mr. Lynch said. “It never took a bite. It didn’t seem very interested in the whale. But he was nudging it and going around it. He came right up to my boat, about two feet from it.”

Mr. Skomal has successfully tagged great white sharks off Chatham. In September 2009, he tagged five sharks and tracked their migration south.

On Friday morning, he began traveling to Martha’s Vineyard from his office in New Bedford, hoping to tag the shark sighted off Gay Head. Mr. Lynch was to take Mr. Skomal out to the area where he and his friends spotted the shark.

“He (Mr. Skomal) wants to come down and tag it, but I guess the whale people are going to detach the whale from the lobster gear and tow it. So they are kind of taking Greg’s bait away from him, but I’m on call,” Mr. Lynch said in a call to The Times late Friday morning.

Mr. Skomal later decided not to travel to Gay Head after learning that the whale had been removed.

Environmental Police Sergeant Matt Bass accompanied the Woods Hole scientists to the whale. In an update Friday afternoon, Sergeant Bass said he did not see any sharks but did spot a minke whale. Mr. Bass said the scientists would perform a necropsy on the whale.

He said it was still not possible to say for certain whether the lobster gear played a role in its death. “That’s the part that we are going to take a look at,” he said.

The minke whale and the great white shark are both protected species.

Minke whales are members of the baleen whale family and are the smallest of the “great whales” or rorquals, according to NOAA. They vary in body size, patterns, coloration, and baleen, based on geographical location.

Minke whales feed by side-lunging into schools of prey, as well as gulping large amounts of water. These whales opportunistically feed on crustaceans, and small schooling fish that include mackerel.

Minke whales are the most abundant rorqual in the world, and its population status is considered stable throughout almost all of its range. There are an estimated 185,000 minke whales in the Atlantic.

Rumors of great white sharks and shark sightings in the waters around Martha’s Vineyard are infrequent but not unusual.

In June 2008 veteran Menemsha charter captain Scott McDowell was at the helm of his new boat, a 35-foot Duffy, between Dogfish Bar and Gay Head when he said a large shark came out of the water about 50 yards in front of his boat. “It was a large animal,” Scott said at the time, “surprisingly fat.”

Reports of sharks, any shark, in the waters of Martha’s Vineyard generally ignite a media feeding frenzy. In July 2008 unsubstantiated reports of great white sharks spotted off South Beach led to beach closures and 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.