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Swimmer's giant quest quashed by tiny shark


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POSTED: Sunday, March 22, 2009

WAILUKU » A Maui man trying to swim from the Big Island to Maui might instead become known for being the first living person bitten by a cookie-cutter shark.

Mike Spalding of Kula was attempting to become the third person known to cross the dangerous 30-mile Alenuihaha Channel when an undersea animal attacked him Monday night.

Spalding had already been swimming for four hours and 11 miles when the animal inflicted a superficial wound on his chest and then bit him in the calf a few seconds later, leaving a circular wound 3 inches in diameter and about 1 inch deep.

He never saw what creature forced a short end to his quest. He was taken by his support boat to shore, and then his wife drove him to Maui Memorial Medical Center. He checked out from the hospital Friday.

But shark expert John Naughton said no other ocean-dwelling creature has a similar bite mark.

“;I can't imagine what else it would be,”; said Naughton, who recently retired after 40 years with the National Marine Fisheries Service and who still does consulting work on sharks.

Cookie-cutter sharks grow up to 20 inches long and have razorlike teeth—a tiny set along their upper jaw and large, jagged teeth on their lower jaw, Naughton said.

They are known as “;sort of a mosquito of the sea”; that live deeper than 1,000 feet during the day and cruise to the surface at night, Naughton said. They normally take bites out of open-ocean fish like ahi, mahimahi, Hawaiian monk seals, dolphins or whales.

The only other incident Naughton knew of was in July 1992, when a drowned man had the distinctive, circular wounds of the cookie-cutter shark on his back. However, the Honolulu Medical Examiner's Office thought the wounds were inflicted after death.

Most serious, sometimes fatal, shark attacks are attributed to tiger sharks.

When asked about Naughton's view that he was the first survivor of a cookie-cutter shark attack, Spalding said he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Spalding said he believes the shark was attracted to a group of squid that had been drawn to a light on the kayak next to him.

He plans to use less light to attract fish on his next channel crossing attempt.