UPDATED: Friday, 4:49 p.m. 

WESTERLY — Apparently it was a sunfish after all.

An ominous looking fin spotted Friday morning lurking in the water off Misquamicut State Beach led the staff to order swimmers onto the sand and out of the surf. There was fear it was shark's, but now it's believed to have been the fin of an ocean sunfish.

"Based on a video that we’ve seen within the last half hour, DEM now believes that the fin spotted at Misquamicut State Beach at around 9:45 a.m. belonged to an ocean sunfish and not a mako shark," Michael Healey, chief public affairs officer for the state Department of Environmental Management, said Friday afternoon.

The ocean sunfish, heavy and circular shaped, has a prominent dorsal fin and can weigh well over 500 pounds.

Fearing the fin belonged to a mako shark, the beach manager used the public address system to ask swimmers to clear the water and then called the department's Division of Marine Fisheries to report the sighting. The first fin was observed about 50 yards from shore. At about 10:30 a.m. there was a second sighting, farther out. Beachgoers were limited to ankle deep wading until about 11:30 a.m. when they were allowed to return to swimming.

A DEM marine biologist made the initial identification by studying a photograph taken by the beach manager through binoculars, but a video submitted to the department later on provided a better look.

"We didn’t think it was the dorsal fin of another frequent visitor, the sand tiger shark; it didn’t look high enough to be a great white’s fin; it wasn’t flopping over to the side like a sunfish’s fin can do; and the tail fin of a thresher is even higher than the dorsal fin, and there’s no visible tail fin in the photo. A photograph, however, is static. In the video it appears that, actually, the dorsal fin does move — whereas a shark’s dorsal fin is stationary," Healey said.

DEM hopes to improve its shark safety protocol by deploying "video drones at state beaches to aid in the dissemination of rapid — and accurate — identifying information," Healey said in a statement.

The determination of sunfish rather than shark aligned with theories offered by several local residents. Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey early in the day reviewed a video of the fin taken by a beachgoer before DEM revised its assessment. "To me it looked like a sunfish," Lacey said, adding that the animal's behavior appeared consistent with that of a sunfish, not a shark.

A Westerly Police Department boat that was already on patrol was redirected to monitor the area between the Seaside Beach Club, at the far eastern end of Atlantic Avenue, to Watch Hill, Lacey said. The boat's crew did not observe any sharks or other noteworthy creatures, Lacey said.

Seaside Beach Club implemented a no-swim order late Tuesday afternoon after learning that fishermen reported seeing a shark near the Weekapaug breachway. Lacey and Healey said they were not aware of the sighting on Tuesday.

On Friday lifeguards at the two town beaches learned of the sighting at the state beach almost instantaneously, said Paul Duffy, director of the town's Recreation Department, which manages the town beaches. There is a well-developed communications network between the beaches at Misquamicut and the town beaches to the east. Duffy said the lifeguards at the town beaches had not observed anything unusual as of around 2 p.m. Friday and never deemed it necessary to restrict swimming.

"From what I was told, and none of us are in a position to say anything definitively, the consensus was it was a sunfish," Duffy said.

ORIGINAL STORY

WESTERLY — Swimmers at Misquamicut State Beach were asked to clear the water for about two hours Friday morning following the sighting of a fin believed to have been a shark.

The fin was spotted about 50 yards from shore in front of the beach tower in the center of the beach at about 9:45 a.m. The fin was observed by the beach manager, lifeguards and patrons, said Michael Healey, chief public affairs officer for the state Department of Environmental Management. At about 10:30 a.m. staff members at the beach saw a second fin farther out from shore.

The beach manager confirmed that the fin looked like a shark's when seen through binoculars from the tower. In accordance with DEM procedure, the manager used the beach's public address system to ask swimmers to clear the water and then called the department's Division of Marine Fisheries to report the sighting.

The beach then limited access to the water to ankle deep. A DEM marine biologist "later confirmed the fin most likely was that of a mako shark," Healey said in a statement.

Beachgoers were allowed back into the water to swim at about 11:30 a.m. "DEM policy keeps patrons out of the water for one hour following a sighting," Healey said.

Some local residents disputed the identification of the fish, which was spotted near a buoy marking the swimming area at the state beach. Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey reviewed a video of the fin taken by a beachgoer. "To me it looked like a sunfish," Lacey said, adding that its behavior appeared consistent with that of a sunfish, not a shark.

A Westerly Police Department boat that was already on patrol was redirected to monitor the area between the Seaside Beach Club, at the far eastern end of Atlantic Avenue, to Watch Hill, Lacey said. The boat's crew did not observe any sharks or other noteworthy creatures, Lacey said.

Lifeguards at the two town beaches learned of the sighting at the state beach almost instantaneously, said Paul Duffy, director of the town's Recreation Department, which manages the town beaches. There is a well-developed communications network between the beaches at Misquamicut and the town beaches to the east. Duffy said the lifeguards at the town beaches had not observed anything unusual as of around 2 p.m. Friday, Duffy said, and never deemed it necessary to restrict swimming.

"From what I was told, and none of us are in a position to say anything definitively, the consensus was it was a sunfish," Duffy said.

While sightings are not particularly common, a variety of sharks travel through the waters of the state's Atlantic coastline, Healey said. A mako could be drawn close to shore at this time of year by an abundance of prey fish such as menhaden, blues, and small stripers.

"Historically and anecdotally, usually once or twice a summer, we’ll hear from commercial fishermen who catch makos in gill nets within 3 miles of shore, so we know that hypothesizing it’s a mako isn’t unreasonable," Healey said.

Shark attacks are exceedingly rare in Rhode Island, he added.

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