A recently retired fashion industry executive was killed by a great white shark while swimming near her summer home on Bailey Island in Harpswell Monday afternoon.
Julie Dimperio Holowach, 63, was identified Tuesday as the victim of what is the first documented fatal shark attack in Maine. Holowach also lived in New York City and Naples, Florida.
Kipling President Julie Dimperio attends Kipling’s 25th Anniversary celebration at Helen Mills Event Space on March 7, 2012 in New York City. Dario Cantatore(Photo by Dario Cantatore/Getty Images
Maine’s Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed that Holowach was attacked by a shark and a scientist determined it was a great white based on a tooth fragment, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The department urged people recreating in the water to avoid schools of fish or seals, which can attract sharks. Beaches at Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg and Reid State Park in Georgetown were posted as wading only.
Holowach, who has a home on Bailey Island and is well known in the community, was swimming about 20 yards offshore just outside Mackerel Cove on Bailey Island in Harpswell on Monday afternoon when she was attacked. Two kayakers brought the victim to shore, where they were met by a crew of Harpswell first responders. She died at the scene.
Holowach’s daughter was swimming with her but was not injured, according to the Maine Marine Patrol.
Tom Whyte, a neighbor who knew Holowach, watched the attack happen from his office overlooking Mackerel Cove.
He saw two swimmers he didn’t immediately recognize and looked through binoculars to see Holowach and her daughter. Holowach was wearing a wetsuit and was about 10 or 15 feet behind her daughter, who did not have a wetsuit, he said.
Tom Whyte looks out on Mackerel Cove where a woman was killed in a shark attack on Monday. Whyte heard the screams and saw the attack happen from his second-story office window. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
“You could hear her giggling and laughing,” Whyte said. “All of a sudden Julie just started screaming for help.”
Holowach’s daughter started swimming toward her mother, he said. “And all of a sudden Julie went under. It looked like she was pulled under.”
Her daughter swam to shore screaming for help.
“Everyone is confused,” he said. “Why is the other swimmer still there?”
Steve Arnold, an Alabama man renting a house near the shore, heard two women laughing and then a scream that made him look at the water.
“I saw her lift a little bit out of the water… 12 to 18 inches maybe,” he said.
Arnold and other neighbors expressed shock about the attack, especially so close to shore. Shark attacks are not something people worry about when swimming on the Maine coast. Some said they could not talk about it because Holowach’s death was too devastating. Her family was not accepting calls and had not spoken to media.
Holowach and her husband, Al Holowach, own a home in the area and spend several months each year in Maine. She and her family are well known and active in the local community and throughout southern Maine.
Holowach retired in 2016, when she was president of Kipling, a bags and accessories company founded in Belgium and part of the VF Corp. group, which includes The North Face and Timberland. A year later she joined the board of directors at Sea Bags, a Portland-based company that makes and sells bags, accessories and home decor.
Don Oakes, CEO of Sea Bags, remembered Holowach as a vivacious, adventurous and creative woman who loved living in Maine. He communicated with her last weekend about a board meeting planned in August.
“It’s so tragic,” Oakes said. “She loved to swim. She’s done the Tri for a Cure (a fundraising triathlon for the Maine Cancer Foundation) several times. She’s a summer resident of Maine, May through October. A big part of her is Maine.”
Oakes said Holowach had a long and distinguished career in the fashion industry and had made a significant contribution to Sea Bags, which shares a commitment to sustainability with VF Corp. companies.
“Her passion for the ocean, the state of Maine and causes we believe in made her an invaluable supporter and friend,” Oakes said in a company statement. “It is with a heavy heart that we share our feeling of loss with Julie’s family.”
Holowach was known professionally by her maiden name, Dimperio, according to Women’s Wear Daily, the fashion industry trade journal. She was president of special markets for the Liz Claiborne brand from 2000 to 2006 before becoming president of Kipling North American.
Holowach also ran the New York City marathon with her daughter a few years ago, according to her Facebook page. She posted about her love for Maine and the ocean.
Maine Marine Patrol Maj. Rob Beal said at a news briefing on Tuesday, “The community is at a tough juncture trying to process yesterday’s incident.” Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo
“Julie and her husband are very well respected. The community is at a tough juncture trying to process yesterday’s incident,” said Maj. Rob Beal of the Maine Marine Patrol.
Beiley Island sits at the end of a peninsula that juts out into Casco Bay. The island is connected to mainland Harpswell by a historic cribstone briedge.
Charlie Wemyss-Dunn tried to rescue Holowach, and brought her back to shore.
The Boston man and his wife were at a nearby home and heard screams. They thought someone might be drowning or needed help, so they got in a tandem kayak and paddled out.
The site was horrifying and it took time process what was happening, they said. “We saw what was in the water. We saw her condition,” he said.
Wemyss-Dunn dropped his wife onshore but then paddled back out, this time with his mother. They tried to keep Holowach’s head above water. His mother held Holowach’s hand as he paddled to shore.
Jeff Cooper, co-founder of H2Outfitters in Orr’s Island, rented the kayak to Wemyss-Dunn and spoke to him after the attack.
“It was traumatic for the people who had the courage to go out there and retrieve (her). There was a lot of blood in the water,” he said. “They had strong character to go out there and do that. They did what had to be done. We should all be thankful people like that exist.”
Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher praised the two kayakers who pulled Holowach from the water. “I can’t stress enough the thanks we have for the efforts they made,” Keliher said.
“I want to stress this is a very highly unusual event,” Keliher said.
The only other recorded report of an unprovoked attack in Maine waters involved a scuba diver in Eastport in 2010, according to the Florida Museum’s International Shark Attack File. The diver was not inured and fended off a porbeagle shark with his video camera.
Beal said the marine patrol is monitoring the area near the attack and asking the public to report any shark sightings to their local marine patrol. A plane flew over the water from Casco Bay to Sheepscot Bay Tuesday morning but no sharks were spotted.
There have been no additional reports of sharks in the area, Beal said. But marine officials are warning people who are swimming or recreating on the water to avoid schools of fish and seals, which attract sharks.
“This is a predatory issue,” Keliher said. “The presence of seals is really the driver here.”
Keliher said wearing a wet suit or anything dark can mimic a seal. “This is not something we would have considered in Maine waters before,” he said.
Cooper, the kayak outfitter, said he has never seen a shark during his 40 years of boating, but has heard from local fishermen that they occasionally see tiger sharks in the area. He first heard of the attack Monday afternoon over a scanner and said first responders described a woman with damage to her stomach after being “attacked by something.” He drove to a small local beach to warn swimmers to get out of the water.
H2Outfitters runs a children’s summer camp that is cancelled Tuesday because of the shark attack. Cooper said it’s likely activities for the rest of the week will be adjusted to keep kids out of the water.
A lobster boat passes close to the location in Mackerel Cove off Bailey Island where a woman was killed in a shark attack on Monday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
The company is halting the rental of kayaks, and some people have brought weekly rentals back early. It may continue guided trips tonight and kayak close together so that there aren’t any stragglers in the group. “Kayaks have been mistaken for seals,” Cooper said.
“I think people should be concerned,” Cooper said. “They need to pay attention, especially with a threat you can’t see in the water.”
Maryellen Amendola sat on a nearly empty beach near the site of the attack with her 17-year-old daughter and her daughter’s friend. They were visiting the family’s summer home in Harpswell from West Nyack, N.Y., as they’ve done for the last 20 years.
“I’m not typically a big ocean swimmer anyways,” Amendola said. “But especially not now.”
James Sulikowski, a former University of New England professor and researcher who conducts shark research in Maine and locations worldwide, was fairly certain the victim’s attacker was a great white shark, a large predatory animal that can reach lengths of more than 17 feet. More of the white sharks have been seen off the coast of Maine in recent years, he said. White sharks are fast swimmers and can reach Maine in one day from the waters off Cape Cod.
“Shark interactions with humans are very rare in Maine,” Sulikowski said in an interview Monday evening. “My guess is that the person was mistaken for a food item.”
Great white sharks, also known as white sharks, are known as ambush predators. They can travel at high speeds and like to sneak up on their prey. Sulikowski said white sharks have been known to swim below the surface before rocketing upward like a torpedo and striking their unsuspecting prey with as much force as possible.
The shark that attacked the woman in Harpswell may have been the same shark that attacked a seal in Phippsburg on Sunday. That attack left a a 19-inch long bite mark – the seal was not eaten– that could only have been made by a shark 11 feet long or larger, Sulikowski said.
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this story.