An unverified sighting of a great white shark consuming a seal took place Sunday afternoon close to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.
John Felvey, a seasonal resident of Oak Bluffs, told The Times that at about 2 pm Sunday, he saw a large black fin behind what he thought was the muzzle of a seal.
Felvey was having coffee at his home on Beach Road when he saw the fin. “I saw a black fin. I couldn’t actually believe it,” he said. “I stare constantly at the harbor. First time I’ve ever seen a fin like that. I’ve seen a lot of porpoises in my life, and this was not a porpoise.”
Felvey estimated the fin was 100 yards from shore. He described it as triangular, 12 to 18 inches high, and about 18 inches at its base. “Quintessential — what you think of [for] a shark,” he said.
The fin submerged and resurfaced once, he said. A few feet ahead of the fin, Felvey thought he saw the whiskery face of a seal. He stressed there was no struggle, no white water or blood. He guessed the shark was eating a recent kill.
Felvey said he’s seen seals along East Chop Drive.
Gannon and Benjamin shipwright Matt Hobart told The Times he saw an ocean sunfish in the harbor “right in front of the hospital” at about 5 pm Saturday while he was out sailing. He tried unsuccessfully to shepherd the fish out of the Steamship Authority ferry lanes, he said, because he feared the next ferry would run the languid fish over. It was “definitely in harm’s way,” he said.
Ocean sunfish have a large dorsal fin that can be mistaken for a shark fin.
Hobart said he hasn’t seen seals in the harbor. Asked if he might have observed an ocean sunfish, Felvey reviewed images on the web and skimmed through articles on the fish. “I suppose it could have been. Looks very similar,” he said.
After reading ocean sunfish are frequently mistaken for sharks, Felvey said he also read that a way to differentiate the two is by movement—sharks keep their dorsal fins stationary, while ocean sunfish flop their fins from side to side. “This dorsal fin was definitely not moving back and forth,” he said.
Ocean sunfish, scientifically known as Mola mola, are plankton and sea jelly eaters, New England Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse told the Times. They have a floppy fin, he noted.
“It’s not usually erect,” LaCasse said. Even a stationary fish’s fin tends to curl over, he said. “It’s a prominent dorsal fin. It could be mistaken for a shark, but it’s not likely.”
While it may have been a shark, LaCasse said it’s possible that the seal was actually checking out the sunfish. “Seals are curious,” he said. “It might have been checking out a Mola [mola].”
Asked if the potential for sharks in the harbor would deter him from swimming, Felvey said, “Absolutely not.” He went on to say if anyone thinks their likelihood of getting bitten by a great white is higher than being in a car accident, “they need their head examined — very, very remote chance. I trust a shark more than I do a drunk driver.”