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The Honolulu Advertiser
Updated at 2:51 p.m., Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Apparent shark bite ends Maui man's channel swim

By Brian Perry
Maui News

WAILUKU Something, most likely a cookie-cutter shark, took a bite out of Mike Spalding's left calf Monday night as he was attempting to swim the nearly 30-mile Alenuihaha Channel from the Big Island to Maui.

"I'm a glutton for water time," said the 61-year-old Kula resident, a well-known open-ocean swimmer and Maui Realtor. "I was in a zone. .. I was in pig heaven. And then this thing happens."

"This thing" was a 3-inch-diameter, 1-inch-deep wound on the back of his left leg, an injury most likely inflicted by a species of shark that grows about 20 inches long and takes melon-ball-sized chunks of flesh from its prey.

Spalding was about 4 1/2 hours and 11 miles into crossing the channel about 8 p.m. when, at first, he felt a sharp pain on his sternum, which turned out to be a superficial wound. Nevertheless, he immediately began moving to a kayak accompanying him.

About 15 seconds later, "I got hit in the calf," he said. "It was such a disappointment because I knew the swim was over. I was bleeding profusely."

In darkness, except for a light on a kayak paddled nearby by Bubba McLean, Spalding made his way to the boat to get away from whatever bit him.

"I didn't see it," he said of the shark. "All I felt was the bite, and I got the hell out of the water as quick as I could."

McLean, also a Kula resident, said he heard Spalding yell in pain.

"It was pretty crazy. He got hit twice," said McLean, who estimated he was about 3 feet away from Spalding when he was bitten.

McLean described the night as pitch black. "I couldn't see anything in the water," he said, adding that he knew Spalding was in serious trouble "because of the way he yelled."

Spalding scrambled into the kayak, the bottom of which began to quickly fill with blood. McLean said he took off his gloves and fumbled with the zipper of his backpack to grab a VHF radio to call a nearby support boat for help.

The boat and its crew picked up the men and the kayak. Kihei resident Rob Phillips, coach of the Kihei Canoe Club, was on the boat and said everyone did what they could to make Spalding comfortable and to stop the bleeding.

Pressure was applied to the wound with a towel. Then, an antibiotic was put on the wound, which was covered with gauze and secured with duct tape, Phillips said.

The crew took Spalding to the Kihei Small Boat Ramp where his wife, Jill, was waiting to drive him to Maui Memorial Medical Center. Spalding said that the boat ride took 2 1/2 hours, but he was not in a lot of pain. Instead, he was upset that his attempt to cross the channel was cut short.

Spalding, who was inducted into the Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame in 2008 for his seven successful channel swims between Hawaiian islands, said he has only one remaining, "the hardest one," the 30-mile Alenuihaha Channel between the northern tip of the Big Island and the southeast shore of Maui.

He said he knows of only two people to accomplish the feat Harry Huffaker in April 1970 and Australian swimmer Penny Palfrey, who reportedly did it in 14 hours and 51 minutes earlier this month.

Spalding said he had been training for six months and waiting three months for perfect conditions to make the crossing - perfect weather, variable winds and favorable tides.

He left Upolu Point on the northern tip of the Big Island around 3:30 p.m. Monday.

"We got a nice push off the island with the currents," he said. "We had a real good time. Everything was looking really good."

Although Spalding never saw what bit him, he said he had no doubt, "It's a cookie-cutter shark." He said he's certain because of the symmetrical shape of his calf wound as well as the shape of the bite mark on his sternum.

Spalding said the incident won't end his quest to swim the Alenuihaha Channel.

He said he's being well cared for at the hospital, particularly by Dr. Peter Galpin, who might do a skin graft on the calf injury. Yesterday, the wound was being flushed out and cleaned, and Spalding was being given antibiotics.

Dr. Tim Tricas, a professor of zoology at the University of Hawaii-Manoa with a research lab at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, said he couldn't be certain Spalding was bitten by a cookie-cutter shark.

But, the description of Spalding's wounds, is "consistent with a bite from a cookie-cutter shark," he said.

Tricas said such sharks have very sharp teeth. They usually prey upon pelagic fish, such as tuna, or porpoises.