Natural Selections

P.E.I.’s Great White Shark

The Discovery Channel named this white shark one of the two largest ever measured. Whether that’s true or not is debatable, but it is an amazing story that I wrote about in 2005.
The shark itself is a hulking behemoth for sure, but the real story is how the account of its existence didn’t get lost. Here is my account from interviews I conducted almost a decade ago.

P.E.I.’s Monster Shark

By Joe Fitzgerald – Special to the Daily News

August 7, 2005

p-e-i-shark

 

It was an idyllic summer day in August 1983 when Jack Woolner and his wife, vacationing from Massachusetts, were jigging cod in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a little more than a kilometre off Alberton, P.E.I.

Woolner, an avid sport fisherman, watched his wife hook a fish and begin bringing it up to their 16 foot boat. When Woolner’s wife suddenly said she thought she had hooked bottom, events took an eerie turn.

“The line just stopped dead,” says Woolner, now living Shrewsbury, Mass.

The Woolners applied pressure and the line snapped. Upon examining it, Woolner saw the line had been severed.

“It looked like somebody had cut it with a pair of pliers,” says Woolner.

Woolner assumed it must have been faulty gear until later that day, when fishermen coming into shore announced they had caught a whale in their nets.

“We followed them to the dock,” says Woolner, “and when the ‘whale’ became visible, I could tell by the tail that it was a shark.”

What turned out to be a mammoth great white shark was pulled up onto the wharf, the RCMP arriving shortly after.

Woolner took photos while the gawking crowd debated the creature’s identity. Less than a decade after the hysteria created by the movie JAWS, it was quickly decided to whisk the shark away to a landfill and bury it.

“I had the sense the RCMP didn’t want a big story made of it,” says Woolner, “and the locals saw no commercial value in it.”

Unable to persuade anyone to preserve and properly document the shark, Woolner called his friend, Hal Lyman, in Boston, then editor of Salt Water Sportsman Magazine, and explained the situation. Lyman called shark scientist Chuck Stillwell at the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, who in turn alerted Tom Hurlbut at the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

From Woolner’s photos, an excited Stillwell believed the shark might be a pregnant female great white, of which no samples had ever been taken.

“Chuck told me we’ve got to get samples of this shark,” says Hurlbut.

Arriving a week later, Hurlbut found the head of the shark rotting in a field, and found it impossible to exhume the body with mere shovels.

After securing money to hire a pay loader, Hurlbut finally examined the shark, three weeks after it was caught.

“It was considerably rotted by this point,” says Hurlbut, “but I proceeded to dissect what was left of it.”

Hurlbut did not find any young in the putrefied carcass, or Woolner’s fishing gear, but he did discover the remains of two harbour porpoise and a number of cod that had probably led to its demise.

An unofficial measurement at the dock put the shark at slightly more than five metres, but Jack Woolner insists it was considerably longer than his five-metre-long boat.

Woolner believes if he had not been at the scene, the enormous great white would have simply slipped into the depths of anonymity, perhaps joining other such behemoths hidden in the Maritime gloom.

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Categories: Natural Selections

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