The attack happened in Orient Bay, a popular beach on the French side of the Caribbean island. The victim was swimming approximately 150 metres offshore at the time.
The shark tore the woman’s leg off in the attack, leaving her unconscious in the water. A boat operator who heard her cries showed up to pull her out of the water, but she died while she was being treated for her injuries, AFP reports.
The woman has not been identified, but authorities say she was staying on the island on sabbatical from France. Various reports say she was in her late 30s or early 40s.
The attack shocked residents in St. Martin and in St. Maarten, the Dutch-controlled portion on the same island. St. Martin’s government banned all swimming and water sports for 48 hours after the death.
It was the first fatal shark attack in St. Martin in recent memory, government spokesperson Alain Rioual said.
It was also the first unprovoked shark bite since 2005, according to Tyler Bowling, who tracks such incidents for the Florida Program for Shark Research. He told the Associated Press that shark bites are extremely rare, with only 34 unprovoked bites on record for the entire Caribbean region over the last 20 years. A total of four people died in that span.
It’s unclear what type of shark was involved in the attack. Nurse sharks and Caribbean reef sharks are the most common species in the area, but experts say they’re generally not a threat. Tiger sharks and bull sharks are also known to live in the area, though actual attacks are quite rare.
“It’s pretty unusual in that part of the world,” said Gavin Naylor, program director of the Florida-based International Shark Attack File.
Naylor told the AP that most Caribbean shark attacks happen in the Bahamas due to the large number of tourists there. He says it’s quite surprising to see a fatal incident in St. Martin.
“We see a very strong correlation between shark bites and the number of people in the water,” he said.
The St. Martin attack occurred two days after another deadly incident in Hawaii, where a shark fatally injured a surfer in Honolua Bay.
The victim, a 56-year-old man, died in hospital on Wednesday. A women’s surfing competition was also halted due to the attack.
International Shark Attack File reported a total of 64 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks worldwide last year.
— With files from The Associated Press