WAILUKU - Despite the loss of a piece of his left calf from a shark bite Monday, Kula resident Mike Spalding still wants to become the third person known to swim the nearly 30-mile Alenuihaha Channel from the Big Island to Maui.
But shark expert John Naughton said Thursday that Spalding may have already achieved a different kind of notoriety as the first live person to be bitten by a cookie-cutter shark.
Judging by the description of the bite, a circular plug of flesh taken from Spalding's calf, "I can't imagine what else it would be," said Naughton, who retired recently after 40 years with the National Marine Fisheries Service and who still does consulting work on sharks.
JENNIFER CRITES photo
The cookie-cutter shark’s razorlike teeth allow it to neatly remove a plug of flesh from much-larger victims.
The incident occurred in pitch-black darkness shortly after 8 p.m. Monday as Spalding, a 61-year-old Realtor and well-known open-ocean swimmer, was about four hours and 11 miles into his swim from the Big Island to Maui. He didn't see the animal that inflicted a superficial wound on his chest a few seconds before biting him in the calf, leaving a circular wound 3 inches in diameter and about 1 inch deep.
Spalding was taken by his support boat to the Kihei Boat Ramp, where his wife, Jill, drove him to Maui Memorial Medical Center.
Naughton said the cookie-cutter shark, also known by its scientific name Isistius brasiliensis, normally takes bites out of open-ocean fish like ahi, mahimahi or ono, Hawaiian monk seals, dolphins or whales.
The shark grows up to 20 inches long and has razorlike teeth - a tiny set along its upper jaw and large, jagged teeth on its lower jaw, he said. The creatures live deeper than 1,000 feet during the day and cruise to the surface at night.
"They're a slow-swimming animal," Naughton said, but the sharks make up for their lack of speed with a bit of trickery.
The lower part of the shark is bioluminescent, meaning it glows in the dark, and fish at lower depths see the light and come nearer to investigate, he said. When the fish gets close enough, the cookie-cutter shark lunges, sinks its teeth into flesh and gets spun around by the force of the water. The combination of the shark's sharp bite and spinning movement cuts a plug of meat from its prey, said Naughton. The bite would not kill the fish.
Naughton added that the shark's feeding behavior is theorized since it hasn't actually been observed. He said scientists developed the theory by dissecting cookie-cutter sharks caught in open-ocean trawling nets. The sharks' stomach contents included flesh from fast-swimming fish like mahimahi, and the theory helped explain how a slow-moving shark could get close enough to take a bite out of the faster-swimming fish, he said.
Cookie-cutter sharks are "sort of a mosquito of the sea," Naughton said.
He said he's familiar with the Alenuihaha Channel, and "can't believe (Spalding) was swimming there at night."
"The currents in the channel can be something," he said. "It's one of the nastiest pieces of ocean in the world."
Naughton said the only other incident he's aware of in which there was evidence that a person was bitten by a cookie-cutter shark was in July 1992. He said he was called into the Honolulu Medical Examiner's Office to examine the wounds on the back of a fisherman who had drowned. He had tied himself to an ice chest and was found floating about 15 miles off the coast of Waianae. The man had the distinctive, circular wounds left by cookie-cutter sharks, but the medical examiner thought the wounds were inflicted after death, he said
In Spalding's case, "it's the first I'm aware of (of a cookie-cutter shark) attacking someone while still alive," Naughton said.
Most serious, sometimes fatal, shark attacks are attributed to tiger sharks, and these incidents usually occur near shore, he said. But tiger sharks also feed in the open ocean, especially at night.
If Spalding's encounter had been with a tiger shark, "that would have been a hell of a lot more serious of a chomp," Naughton said, adding that shark experts recommend that people not swim at night.
Spalding checked out of the hospital Friday but planned to return later for a skin graft.
When asked about Naughton's assessment that he might be the first survivor of a cookie-cutter shark attack, Spalding said he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He said he thought the shark was attracted to a group of squid that had been drawn to a light on the kayak next to him.
On his next channel crossing attempt, he said he plans to use less light to attract fish, and to have improved communications with his support crew.
* Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.