Report of white sharks off South Beach doesn’t hold water

In July 2008, this was the sign that beachgoers found on South Beach. Some folks could even joke about it. — File photo by Alex Bell

Edgartown officials said Monday that a report of five white sharks off South Beach Sunday could not be verified. Bottle-nosed dolphins, brown sharks, even basking sharks, but white sharks, no.

When the topic is white sharks and Martha’s Vineyard, life often imitates art. Any mention of great whites is certain to cause a stir.

Sunday evening, student pilot Ben Davey, practicing take-offs and landings from the Katama airport about 6:30 pm with an instructor, saw what he thought were five white sharks just off the beach. He called the harbor master’s office, which contacted the dispatch center, which contacted Edgartown Police. Scanners picked up the call, and Islanders posting on Facebook were not far behind.

Police officers saw no evidence of sharks from the beach. In response to a request from police, pilot Mike Creato went aloft but spotted no evidence of sharks.

“We have to report things like that to the communications center,” harbor master Charlie Blair told The Times Monday morning. Mr. Blair, an experienced fisherman, doubted the pilot saw white sharks. He said porpoises, in the harbor on Monday, were more likely.

Monday afternoon, Marilyn Wortman, Edgartown parks administrator, said monitoring of the beach by land and air had turned up no evidence of white sharks, which are solitary by nature.

Greg Skomal, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries biologist and shark expert, has been tagging and monitoring white sharks off the coast of Chatham. Mr. Skomal, a former Vineyard resident, said there are no reports of white sharks off the Vineyard. But, he said, basking sharks do form groups and that is likely what the pilot saw.

Five years ago, in July 2008, mostly unconfirmed reports of white sharks led to beaches being closed to swimming around the Island and a media frenzy heavily laced with references to the movie Jaws.