Saturday, July 30, 2005

At the Queen's Medical Center yesterday, Tonga Loumoli and his mother, Paea, showed the injury he got July 21 from a crocodile needlefish.

Fisherman finds out
he was speared by
crocodile needlefish

The "living javelin" is not known
to hit humans, experts say

Tonga "Papio" Loumoli got his nickname from the first fish he ever speared, and now another fish known as the "living javelin" has left its mark as well -- a foot-long scar slicing from his breastbone to his groin.

The Mililani resident and his friend Braven Rivera were night-diving off Kahana Bay at about 11 p.m. on July 21 when a dark blue fish, about 4 feet long, sped by. They thought it was a barracuda, but the souvenir it left in Loumoli's stomach -- a tiny blue tooth -- identified it as a crocodile needlefish.

"It came right across our face, inches from my mask," the 19-year-old said yesterday as he prepared to be released from the Queen's Medical Center after 45 stitches in his torso and a week-long stay.

"As I looked down, all I seen was eyes and teeth," he said. "It drilled me right in the chest. It felt like a missile or a sledgehammer. I said to myself, 'Lord, if it's your will, let it be done.'"

Tonga Loumoli, left, and fishing buddy Braven Rivera talked yesterday at the Queen's Medical Center about Loumoli's encounter with a crocodile needlefish on July 21 while night diving off Kahana Bay.

But Rivera, a 30-year veteran spearfisher, was not ready to give up. He offered to pull his 6-foot-1, 225-pound friend aboard, then braced the dinghy as Loumoli managed to hoist himself onto it. Rivera then swam the quarter-mile back to shore, dragging his buddy and their load of fish.

"The boat was moving faster than I was," Rivera said. "That's what I don't understand. I kept on paddling."

Andrew Rossiter, director of the Waikiki Aquarium, said needlefish cruise near the surface of the water, seeking small fish as prey, and do not normally hit humans.

"They've got very good eyes," he said. "They see things in the distance and dart at them at great speed. They use that as a tackle mechanism for their food, which I emphasize is not usually people."

The crocodile needlefish is the biggest needlefish, growing up to 5 feet long. It has been called the "living javelin" for its attack style. The fish uses the same sudden acceleration as an escape mechanism, and that is probably how Loumoli got hurt, Rossiter said.

A view of the stitched abdominal wound.

"The needlefish had been startled and gone into its escape response, and the swimmer was unlucky enough to be in its escape path," Rossiter said. "It's a million-to-one chance."

The two divers had spotted sharks in the area but were not fazed by them.

When he got to shore, the 44-year-old Rivera ran to a nearby house, wet and out of breath, yelling, "Please, I need help, call 911." But the folks watching TV inside merely looked up at him and turned back to their show, he said.

So Rivera headed for the road, and when he saw headlights, he prayed, "Let it be a cop."

It was. Loumoli's mother and father, who turned 50 that day, got the call from the hospital close to midnight. His mother, Paea, said she could never sleep when her son was night diving.

"It's a hobby that really scared me to death," she said. "I had to stay up at night to see his car come in, to make sure he's still in one piece."


A Leilehua High graduate, Loumoli has been spearfishing since he was a freshman. He played football for Leilehua and later fell in love with rugby. He now attends Remington College, studying criminal justice, with hopes of becoming a police officer.

During his meeting with the news media yesterday, he fingered a white rugby ball and brought along a stack of Bibles as gifts. He also showed off the blue tooth, saying a friend had offered to make it into a necklace for him.

While recovering in intensive care, before he could even talk, Loumoli scribbled a note to his mother: "I'm going to quit diving." But yesterday he was not ruling it out, and might venture back.

"It's going to be very, very scary," he said. "You're going to be looking around. You going to keep having that eerie feeling."

For now it is a hurdle just to cough. He tenses up whenever he gets a tickle in his throat, bracing for the pain.

"I'm used to moving around a lot," he said, shifting his weight in his wheelchair. "Sometimes I move wrong. It feels like my guts are coming out."

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