Once or twice every summer, Maine news feeds explode with word of great white shark sightings off the state’s coast.
Last month, three reported great white sightings — near Wells, Old Orchard Beach and Portland — stirred up all sorts of beach excitement and anxiety.
But after reviewing images taken of these supposed great whites, researchers concluded the massive fish were much more likely to be docile basking sharks, which look a lot like whites, but don’t have the scary “apex predator” reputation.
To be clear, there are almost certainly white sharks off the coast of Maine — the temperatures during most of the year are right, there are plenty of seals here to eat and some of the biggest white sharks ever caught where found off the Canadian coast nearby.
And some of those aforementioned annual sightings definitely are indeed whites.
However, it’s easy to mistake other ocean creatures for great white sharks, and often the fish that cause the Maine frenzies are, in actuality, other things.
Let’s take a look at the aforementioned basking shark, for example. They’re gray on the top and sport a dorsal fin that can ride above the water, and they regularly grow to lengths longer than 20 feet.
It’s rare for a white shark to grow beyond 15-17 feet, so when boaters claim to have encountered a 23- or 24-foot “great white,” there’s a good chance it was a basking shark, like the one in the picture below:
Another common white shark imposter is the ocean sunfish, or the mola mola. The ocean sunfish can be as large as a ton, and while they’re not long and torpedo-shaped like sharks, they’ve got that protruding dorsal fin that can throw people off.
Natives of typically more tropical waters, sunfish aren’t as common Maine fish, so when they do visit, they’re perhaps more apt to confuse people and trigger shark reactions.
To prove they do come up this far, the Maine Marine Patrol posted these photos of a sunfish taken recently off the shore of New Harbor’s Pemaquid Point. Tip of the cap to Troy R. Bennett for passing them along:
Other sharks that are common to Maine waters, like porbeagles and blues, can also create uncertainty among boaters who aren’t used to seeing them.
When it comes to great white sharks themselves, it’s important to put the creatures in context. While they are fierce predators, they don’t want to eat humans — there has never been an unprovoked shark attack in the history of Maine, while there have been 27 fatal lightning strikes since 1959.
The common estimate is that humans kill about 100 million sharks worldwide every year, while sharks kill about five humans over the same period.