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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 22, 2003

Billfish attack footage draws TV attention

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

Whale researcher Mark Ferrari is hoping to use his underwater video of a large billfish attacking him three miles off West Maui for scientific purposes.

"I recognize the scientific value of the tape. It is absolutely incredible stuff," Mark Ferrari said.

Ferrari family photo

But even he admits the dramatic video makes for good entertainment, worthy of a segment on Fox's "When Animals Attack."

While the producers of that show haven't contacted him — yet — he has received phone calls from TV's "Ripley's Believe it or Not!" "Inside Edition" and the "Today Show," which wants to fly him to New York for an interview.

"I can't deny the market value of this," Ferrari said. So far, he's resisted the temptation to sell the footage.

Right now Ferrari, 52, is home with his wife and research partner, Debbie Ferrari, in Covington, La., contemplating reconstructive surgery and wondering whether he'll be able to use his right arm again.

Despite the pain, he's thankful to be alive. Having replayed the video over and over, he knows he's extraordinarily lucky.

"Somebody up there wants me to be alive," he said. "I came within a quarter of an inch of losing my life."

It happened April 15 as Ferrari was videotaping a pod of more than 50 false killer whales that were worked up into a frenzy. He assumed the pod was attacking an ulua, ono or mahimahi. He also heard a shark was in the area, so he stayed close to the research vessel.

Soon it became clear a 15-foot female broadbill swordfish — a big-time ocean predator in its own right — was the focus of the attack. (Initially, it was believed to be a marlin.)

In retrospect, Ferrari said it was foolish to be in the water. But he was fascinated by the extraordinary teamwork and strategy he saw among the false killer whales, or Pseudorca crassidens, a dolphin species rarely seen in Hawai'i because it prefers the open ocean.

Without warning, the swordfish broke free from the hunt and turned on Ferrari, ramming its 5-foot bill into his right shoulder beneath the collarbone. The big fish flipped him around and then flung him away.

Debbie Ferrari and boat pilot Jim Peckarsky helped her bleeding husband climb aboard the vessel and raced to shore. State boating agents at Lahaina Harbor held up cruise ship traffic to get the researcher on land as fast as possible.

Ferrari was taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center in Wailuku where he underwent surgery. Miraculously, no major arteries or organs were pierced, though nerves were damaged and bones broken.

"It's a miracle I'm even talking to you," he said. "The bill missed my carotid artery by a quarter inch and ended up blenderizing my muscles and nerves."

Since the attack, Ferrari has regained some feeling in his upper arm and shoulder and has been able to use his right arm.

Otherwise, the recovery has not progressed as much as he had hoped, and in several weeks he'll undergo evaluation for reconstructive surgery.

Will he work again?

No doubt. In fact, a week after the attack, he was at the helm of the research boat.

"I didn't want the season to end on a bad note. I wasn't supposed to drive the boat, but ... I'm tough to bring down."

In addition to nursing his wounds, he has been replaying the video over and over. It remains just as fascinating as it was to watch the attack firsthand in the water.

"I recognize the scientific value of the tape. It is absolutely incredible stuff," he said. "But the story is not about me getting stuck by a (swordfish). Hopefully, we can turn it into a National Geographic special to educate people about the psuedorcas. I'd rather show people the joys of science."

If nothing else, it will serve as the basis of a scientific paper on the feeding habits of the false killer whale. "We already know they are capable of taking on humpback whale calves," Ferrari said.

The Ferraris visit the Valley Isle three months of the year and have been researching Maui's humpback whales since 1975.

Donations to the Center for Whale Research can be sent to P.O. Box 1539, Lahaina, HI 96767.