SITKA - Yakutat charter boat skipper Mark Sappington may be the only Alaskan able to say he shared his dinner with a great white shark.
Sappington had a boatload of charter clients on the 30-foot Manifest Destiny 14 miles offshore from Yakutat when a great white took a bite - 18 inches wide - out of a halibut being reeled in by one of his six clients.
Sappington related the story as he enjoyed a meal of tacos made from the part of the halibut that the shark didn't get Monday.
"One of the guys on board hooked onto a halibut and was fighting it," Sappington said. "He got it part way to the surface, then it took off in a direction. It was obvious it wasn't going on its own power."
As the client continued to reel in the line, Sappington could see a big bite had been taken out of the middle of the 60-pound halibut.
"We yanked it out before the shark could get it," he said.
After taking the bite, the shark - possibly lured by a halibut on another client's line - circled the boat three times and latched its teeth onto the swim step of the aluminum vessel for a few seconds. Sappington estimated its length at 20 feet.
"It was definitely a great white," said Sappington, who grew up in southern California and has encountered sharks of all types. He noted the shark's "huge size," black eyes and nose shape.
The shark circled around the boat about five more times before taking off.
The experience left the charter clients breathless.
"Everyone was saying repeatedly, 'once in a lifetime,' " Sappington said.
But it may have been the second time in 24 hours for Sappington himself to encounter the shark in the same area.
"The really neat thing about this is that the day before we had a fish taken in the same place," he said.
In that case, a charter client was reeling in a fish when the 400-pound test cable leader was suddenly pulled out at tremendous speed and stripped off the reel.
"I'm sure it was the same one," said Sappington. "It was in the same place at the same time of day."
Sappington, a 29-year veteran, recalled a similar close encounter in the same area eight years ago, when a shark came up and ate a tangle.
The latest sighting is the fourth unconfirmed report this summer of a great white shark in Southeast Alaska, and there have been confirmed reports in previous years, said Tory O'Connell, groundfish project leader for the state Department of Fish and Game in Sitka.
"Yes, great white sharks have been caught and seen in these waters," she said. "It seems to occur in these warm water years, usually in late summer to fall, and often in areas with salmon."
O'Connell said she looked at photos of the Sappington halibut and discussed the bite marks with Gregor Cailliet, a shark expert at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, Calif.
"Without seeing a photo of the shark or a tooth, we can't say for certain," O'Connell said. "But I feel comfortable saying, based on the bite width and talking with Gregor Cailliet, the shark could have been six meters (about 20 feet) or greater, in which case it seems reasonable to think it's a great white shark."
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