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Injured surfer’s shark-bite diagnosis met with skepticism

Reports that a salmon shark may have bit one Campbell River woman's finger while she surfed in Tofino didn't stop people from enjoying the surf at Cox Bay near Tofino, B.C., on Vancouver Island Tuesday.

Deddeda White/The Globe and Mail

When news broke Monday about a possible shark attack near the surfing hot spot of Tofino, media pounced on the story as a cautionary tale of water safety, since white and salmon sharks flock to the far west coast of Vancouver Island.

But experts and local surfers say a salmon shark – blamed by a doctor for biting a chunk out of Kaitlin Dakers's finger – is an unlikely culprit because of its non-serrated teeth and its passivity, as well as the area's lack of shark-related incidents. Many say it's more likely that something else caused Ms. Dakers's injury.

On July 9, Ms. Dakers tried to ride one last big wave near the end of her first surfing lesson. She fell and the wave toppled over her, forcing her underwater and pulling her board – connected to her ankle by a thick cord – toward shore, she said. She knew she was injured when she stood up.

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"I noticed that there was just blood everywhere in the water," Ms. Dakers said. "[I] didn't feel any pain." A doctor at Campbell River Hospital told her it was most likely a shark bite, she said.

Ralph Collier is the president of the Shark Research Committee, which documents shark attacks along North America's Pacific Coast. So far, the committee has not documented a single shark attack during the 20th century in the vicinity of Vancouver Island. He noted that people are too quick to assume bites sustained in the water are caused by sharks: "There are lots of other critters out there that will do the same thing," he said.

The fact that Ms. Dakers didn't experience pain is another clue it was something else, said Kenneth Goldman, the central region's groundfish and shellfish research biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Salmon shark teeth are thin, pointed and not serrated.

"[They] would likely not provide a swift, quick cut," Dr. Goldman said, "but a more tearing type of cut."After examining a photograph of Ms. Dakers's injury, he said he did not think a shark bit her because her wound was small without adjacent holes. It could be a bite from a smaller animal or an injury from the ocean floor's rocky surface, Dr. Goldman said. "Other than a couple scientists working on a boat and getting hit by a tail," he added, there have been no reported injuries from salmon sharks worldwide. It is a small, non-aggressive animal, he said, that is unlikely to swim in such shallow water.

Jay Bower has been surfing the West Coast for the past two decades and has owned Pacific Surf School, where Ms. Dakers had her lesson, since it opened in 1998. The most common injury that he sees is when a surfer's leash snags their hand, he said. Depending on the size of the waves and the placement of the hand, he said the injury could be severe.

That is what Ms. Dakers said she originally thought had happened – until her doctor suggested a bite by a salmon shark. While she remains open to the possibility it was not a shark attack that caused the injury, she insists her hand did not touch any inanimate objects: "There was no rock. The board didn't fall on me."

People in Tofino, meanwhile, don't seem worried about future shark attacks or any associated drop in tourism. "Our beaches are safe," Mr. Bower said. "We do not – fortunately enough – have to deal with sharks." For his surf school, he said, it's business as usual.

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