Monday, July 18, 2005

Great white shark attack...or not?

Reports that the first shark attack in New Jersey in 30 years had occurred here on June 5 were premature and probably are not true, a Princeton-based shark expert said Wednesday.Marie Levine, who is head of the Shark Research Institute in Princeton and is responsible for the Global Shark Attack File, said she suspects that Ryan Horton, 17, of Lacey, was probably struck by the skeg of his surfboard or a piece of underwater debris.George H. Burgess, curator of the International Shark Attack File, an academic competitor, had confirmed on June 7 that the attack was a shark bite after seeing photographs of Horton's wound.

He went on to identify the species of shark as a great white.Horton's father, Jeff, said Wednesday he has not shared any of his son's medical records or photographs of his injuries with Levine despite her repeated requests, so he takes issue with how Levine could debunk the attack as false.Levine said Wednesday she disagrees with Burgess' assessment, explaining that his statements were based on a digital photo generated by a family member's cell phone which had been e-mailed to Burgess.No further investigation or physical examination of Horton's right foot was conducted by Burgess, which was sliced open to a depth of 2 inches.

The wound measured about 1 by 3 inches.When reached by telephone at his offices at the Ichthyology Department at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla., Burgess asked if he could return the call a short time later, but he never did on Wednesday."There are teeth marks . . . I can show you a picture of the injuries to his foot," said Jeff Horton, who went on to describe the nature of his son's injury.

It included a triangle-shaped mark on the inner side of the teenager's ankle as well as other marks he said are consistent with a bite from a large shark.Sean R. Van Sommeran, executive director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif., has been following the purported attack in Surf City and has expressed his own skepticism."It was an apparent, possible shark attack," Van Sommeran said. "However, there was no solid evidence to implicate a white shark. . . . Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not all opinions are scientific and to attribute a nondescript injury to a specific species like the great white shark is irresponsible."

Levine said experts from her institute have also seen the cell phone photo and conducted a face-to-face interview with Horton in the presence of his parents. She said while it's difficult if not impossible to ascertain what happened to Horton, it's also impossible to say with any certainty it was a shark.

"Shark attacks have happened off the Jersey coast," Levine said. "However, our protocol is to first talk to the family and take a look at the injury to survey the bite."But in this case, Levine said Horton's parents declined to allow Dr. Richard G. Fernicola, a doctor of pain management and author of a book about the 1916 shark attacks at the Jersey Shore — the real life inspiration for the "Jaws" movies — to examine the wound.


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