WESTPORT — Still dark at 5:30 a.m. Saturday, Little Compton fisherman Garry Severa worked his way down South Shore Beach and Goosewing Beach, casting out plugs for striped bass.
High tide is coming in as he walks his way down to the rocky cliff where the Little Compton beaches become Quicksand Point in Westport. Slowly, he begins to make out that what he thought was a large piece of driftwood is a shark, with the tide lapping over its nose.
‘When he is standing over the washed-up carcass he recognizes it instantly as a large great white shark, though he’s only seen them in movies and television shows. It’s obviously dead.
“You’re at awe to stand next to one of those things, with all those teeth; it makes your hair stand on end,” he said. “If it was doing any kind of moving, rest assured, I wouldn’t have got close.”
The 65-year-old fisherman whips out his phone and shoots a quick video, then sends it off to WPRI Channel 12 news. In only a few hours the news brings hordes of people out to see the great white shark. The parking lot of South Shore Beach filled up Saturday, with people making the mile-plus walk down the beach to get a once-in-a-lifetime look at a 13-foot great white shark.
Though South Shore Beach and Goosewing Beach were both closed to swimming as a precaution Saturday, people continued to arrive throughout the morning and afternoon.
Finding the great white shark washed ashore just before daybreak must have been eerie for Mr. Severa. But perhaps not as eerie if he had stumbled across it the night before.
Mr. Severa was casting for stripers from South Shore Beach during Friday night’s blue moon tide, from dark until 10:30 p.m. A few fishermen were out that night, and one of them nonchalantly tells him that a shark had washed up a little ways down the beach.
Assuming it was a little sand shark because they had been biting plenty that night, “I paid no attention to him,” Mr. Severa said.
The next morning he returned, having forgotten about the washed-up shark mentioned in such an off-hand way by the fisherman.
Mr. Severa bent down and touched the shark. He pulled out his fishing knife and worked to cut out a tooth to no avail. “I worked at it a little bit like a dentist. Those things are really in there,” he says.
Once spectators arrived at the beach, the lifeguards had to work hard to keep people from touching the shark. Scientists from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries soon arrived and dissected the shark on the beach.
Greg Skomal, a marine biologist with the Division of Marine Fisheries, identified it as a 13-foot adult male great white shark. No visible cause of death, such as bite wounds or boat-propellor marks, were found. Mr. Skomal speculated that the shark may have been caught in fishing gear, though the cause of death is unknown at this point. The shark’s weight is estimated at about 1,500 pounds.
Mr. Severa had inspected what was visible of the shark and did not see any “gouges or big cuts” on its body. He figures the shark washed up with the late-day tide Friday. The blue moon tide had an “extremely strong” west-to-east riptide, accompanied by strong southwest winds, he said. “All those things together would put it on that beach.”
The peeling skin on the shark’s body is likely from strafing across the rocky shore and sun damage.
According to reports, Mr. Skomal said the shark’s stomach was empty. After the dissection the shark’s carcass was left on the beach.
Great whites no stranger to these parts
Westport Harbormaster Richie Earle can only speculate that the great white shark’s death was from getting entangled in a gill net or fish trap, or being caught on a fishing line and cut loose by a fisherman.
“Maybe it choked on a bad seal, you never know,” Mr. Earle said.
But it’s not the first great white shark in these parts. Mr. Earle says 4- and 5-foot great white sharks are caught often in fish traps from Sakonnet Point to Newport, which is only five miles from where the shark washed up this weekend. He’s never seen one himself.
With the increasing seal population around these parts, great white sharks will follow, Mr. Earle said.
As for the rumor blazing around Westport on Sunday that a 13-foot great white shark was spotted in the Westport River, Mr. Earle says it’s unfounded.
“No, no, no,” he said when asked if the a great white had been reported in the river. “Probably someone from a Scandinavian country that hasn’t got a suntan yet.”
A saltwater fisherman for 45 years, Mr. Severa won’t be known for catching the biggest striper in these parts. The Little Compton man, at least for now, is the guy who found the dead great white shark.
By Sunday he’d received 50 phone calls from news outlets from New York to Boston.
“It’s been quite fun,” he says of his recent fame. “It’s like I’ve become somebody, or something.”
A shore fisherman, Mr. Severa has only ever caught sand sharks. Asked if this encounter changes his feelings about fishing, he said, “No. Swimming, yes.”