Updated Aug. 2
South Beach in Edgartown was closed to swimming for much of Tuesday afternoon due to a shark sighting. The beach reopened for swimming at 4 pm.
The shark was apparently spotted about 60 feet offshore at about 12:20 pm by a woman who was about a mile from the left fork at Norton Point. Lifeguards immediately cleared swimmers after she called the Dukes County Sheriff’s communications center, and town leaders made the call to keep the beach closed to swimming.
Once it got to the town’s attention, town administrator James Hagerty told The Times, a plane was sent up from Katama Airfield. The plane spotter said it was definitely not a dolphin in the water. The view from the plane indicated it may have been a hammerhead shark.
Edgartown officials sent up a second plane at about 2 pm to take another look, Hagerty said. He reached out to selectmen before closing the beach. In these kinds of situations, “common sense prevails,” Hagerty said. South Beach is a state beach managed by the town.
Edgartown parks administrator Jessica McGroarty said lifeguards used horns to alert swimmers to get out of the water, then restricted access for swimming. A sign was posted alerting beachgoers to the sighting, and rangers were also issuing alerts verbally. “We just want people to be safe. People can still go to the beach, but they have to stay away from the water,” McGroarty said.
At about 2:20 pm, some swimmers had gone back in the water briefly, but moments later two horns sounded and people ran from the water, according to a Times intern at the scene. Edgartown beach patrol members and rangers from The Trustees of Reservations rode up and down the beach on ATVs telling people to get out of the water.
An unmarked military helicopter and a biplane have been making passes over the water near the shore. The biplanes are on regular sightseeing tours, but if they see a shark near the shore, they report it to lifeguards.
Will DeSilva, a biplane pilot out of Katama Airfield, said he spotted a shark earlier in the day near Wasque. “I’m not a marine biologist, but it looked like a hammerhead to me,” he said.
DeSilva said he’s not sure if it was the same shark.
Few people left the beach, and there were people on the shore who still dangled their feet in the shallow water.
“Are you kidding? This makes it a lot more fun,” Monica Coakley, one of three women sitting at the shore with her feet in the water. “It’s Shark Week, so now we have a story to tell about our vacation.”
McGroarty also mentioned there are tourniquet kits located at each lifeguard tower.
The Trustees of Reservations Vineyard and Nantucket director Sam Hart told The Times his staff had requested all beachgoers exit the water at Norton Point and Long Point. The beaches were accessible for activity on the beach itself, just not in the water, he said. Gatehouse keepers at the Dyke Bridge on Chappaquiddick were informing anyone who passed about the shark sighting; however, nobody was asked to leave the water at Wasque. Hart said The Trustees coordinated with Edgartown officials.
“More than likely we’ll do another flyby, and if the coast is clear, we’ll open at 4 pm,” Hagerty said at about 3:20 pm. Asked if there will be heightened state of vigilance in the coming days, Hagerty said, “Inherently.”
There is, of course, evidence that great sharks are located in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard. In the past few years, there have been buoys located off the coast of South Beach that have detected previously tagged great whites. The Vineyard buoys, however, are not the type that provide information in real time. Instead, shark expert Greg Skomal collects the data after the buoys are removed in the fall.
The news of the shark sighting comes during the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week and as Skomal is preparing for a visit to the Island Thursday to talk sharks at an event in Edgartown.
Skomal told The Times in a text message that he couldn’t ID the species based on the photograph provided.
Reporters Lucas Thors, Rich Saltzberg, and intern Amanda Cronin contributed to this story. Updated to clarify who took the fin photo.