The Shark Chronicles, Part I: Catching Up with a Shark Attack Victim 5 Years Later
The shark swimmer, the shark attack victim and the filmmaker who saved him: Five years after a fateful day, they’ve reunited in Hawai‘i. Lives have changed and moved ahead in ways both wondrous and unexpected, but one shared goal never changes—saving sharks from extinction.
This is Part I in a series. Click here to read Part II.
Five years ago this Oct. 9, O‘ahu and Hawai‘i were in the grip of a shark panic the likes of which hadn’t been seen since 1992. With three fatalities and attacks up 56%, a particularly awful incident on the North Shore seared itself into the consciousness of water lovers and landlocked alike: Out of the blue, a tiger shark fixated on 25-year-old surfer Colin Cook as he was enjoying a perfect glassy late morning at a spot called, with grim prescience, Leftovers.
“Out of nowhere, boom!” recalled Cook shortly after for an article in HONOLULU. “Right on me. He literally had my leg in his mouth,” swinging Cook, “doing that rag-doll thing.”
Despite his punching and fighting, the shark pulled away with Cook’s severed leg in his mouth, like a dog with a bone. As Cook struggled, actually being towed out to sea by his leash—one end still attached to his board, the other to his severed leg—paddleboarder Keoni TeTawa Bowthorpe went to his aid.
A father of three young children, the hard-striving Bowthorpe, then 33, was not just any surfer. In his free time he was working on his first film, an underfunded indie documentary. Its focus was Ocean Ramsey, a North Shore marine biologist and educational shark tour leader known as “The Shark Whisperer,” a nickname she does not embrace. For months Bowthorpe, whose family ‘aumakua is the manō, had been filming Ramsey and partner-cameraman (now-husband) Juan Oliphant on swims with sharks, all in the name of raising awareness of the need to save them from extinction.
The film’s title: Saving Jaws.
When fending off the shark with his paddle proved ineffective, Bowthorpe turned Cook over on his back, and slowly paddled 300 yards to shore, the 13-foot tiger bumping and charging the entire time. On the beach, an excellent tourniquet probably saved Cook from bleeding out during the 40-minute ride to a hospital.
“This Crazy Journey”
Rehabbing back in Newport, Rhode Island, where he grew up and his parents live, Cook battled excruciating pain from his phantom limb while researching how he could get back to surfing. “I’m a surfer. If not, who am I? What’s going to make me happy?”
There are no off-the-rack model surfing prosthetics for AK, or above-the-knee, amputees; in fact, only three people had ever succeeded at stand-up surfing after an AK amputation. “It was heartbreaking to find out how much depends on the knee. Ninety-nine percent of amputee surfers do drop-knee surfing,” he says. “I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
But Cook had a leg up, so to speak, on his research, from his training in composite materials at the IYRS School of Technology and Trades in Newport. “I went on this crazy journey with friends and we came up with a design for a surfing prosthetic. Before, I surfed at a pretty high level. I had the ambition of not just being able to stand; I wanted to do all the turns and carves and get barreled.”
Two engineer buddies he grew up with went to work. There was no duplicating a knee, but a carbon fiber blade could allow controlled flexes. Six months of prototyping addressed the tricky foot maneuvers required on a board: “Toe side, heel side, front foot, back foot, being able to transition my weight, we went into all the body movements that you do surfing. And it turned out to work.”
His first day back surfing followed weeks of practicing on land and on a skateboard. After several ignominious falls, he started to get the hang of it. “I’ve always prided myself on being the best surfer I could be,” Cook says. “I was still in a lot of pain, really bad. But I was able to ride a wave. It wasn’t very pretty, but, I thought, I think I can do this again.” He felt tremendous relief. “My own happiness and identity as a person were riding on this thing.”
Cook was starting over, and not just with surfing. He would find a new relationship, meeting Sydney Corcoran “in a pretty crazy way. She and her family are survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing,” injured while standing at the finish line to cheer on an aunt. “I met Sydney’s mom at a prosthetics company in Florida. She was getting fitted for her prosthesis. We started talking, one thing led to another, and I ended up meeting Sydney and the rest of the family at a fundraiser for 50 Legs—a great foundation that helps people get proper care. They helped me.”
The couple have been together for four years. “She had pretty large pieces of shrapnel in her legs, injured several of her arteries. They almost had to amputate.” Now Sydney is discovering Hawaiʻi with Cook. “She loves diving and spending time at the beach. A huge animal lover.”
“It’s Pretty Good to Know You’ve Helped”
Cook’s initial research and inquiries had brought him to the Florida company Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates. They ended up making the socket of his blade. “The socket is the most important thing in a prosthetic,” Cook says. “They’re a really great company in terms of the people they work with, from the elderly to Paralympic athletes. They kind of understood what I wanted to do. They wanted to help.”
In fact, founder Stan Patterson came up with a tweak of his own a few years after Cook returned to surfing. “I was in Hawai‘i for a surf competition,” Cook says, “and he messaged me, saying he thought I’d be great doing this line of work. And they’d always wanted an office in Hawai‘i.” He’s already at work at his new job, on South King Street in the Interstate Building, after a training period in Florida. He’s a prosthetic technician.
Now when patients, especially new amputees, come in, they see a high-functioning role model in Colin Cook. “They see me moving around like it’s second nature,” he says. Cook’s father, Glenn, recalls watching him assist a patient in Florida: “He was working with this little girl, 6 years old, who’d lost her leg in a tragic accident. The way she looked at him as he was fitting her leg you could see he gave her tremendous confidence.”
Yes, it can be said Cook knows something about confidence. But also about the limitations that come with how others see you.
“The one part that’s been the hardest for me is the shark attack overshadows everything else I’ve done,” he says. “In the beginning I’m just on this high of being alive. I thought there was no way I could’ve survived that. Then there was all the media stuff. It was kind of cool to do that. But now, I’m the shark guy. People see me, they go, ‘Hey, you’re the guy who lost your leg to the shark.’”
He set out to change that. A day came in Rhode Island as he was relearning to surf and made a radical, intuitive move—and his board responded. “That was the first time I surprised myself. And someone out in the lineup said, ‘Hey man, you’re surfing better than people with two legs!’”
As in his new job, opportunity soon came knocking. “Oddly enough, a month after I lost my leg they had the first-ever International Surfing Association Adaptive Surfing Championship. They’re getting surfing into the Paralympics. I was able to make a lot of progress, and I had some success in competitions.”
At the ISA Adaptive Championship in April 2020 in La Jolla, Cook won the world title in the Para Stand 3 Division. It’s his third ISA title. Now, he’s set his sights on the 2024 Paris Paralympics, the first in which surfing will be offered. If he makes it, he’ll join Carissa Moore and John John Florence in representing Hawai‘i in an Olympics (and make Little Compton, Rhode Island, proud, too).
“A Moment of Mistaken Identity”
Cook has a ready reply for those who ask him if he feels any anger toward sharks. “I know when you go in the ocean, it’s the shark’s home. I’ve never held a grudge or thought of sharks as killers. They are not mass-murdering machines. I hold a respect for the shark. People do come up and say, ‘We should just go out and kill them all.’ I say, ‘No, that’s not what we should be doing. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone has a moment of mistaken identity.’”
Cook has seen sharks up close since that October morning in 2015. “There have been times a little PTSD kicked in; they get your heart racing. I went out with Ocean and Keoni and we went shark diving,” off Hale‘iwa. “I felt that was a full 360 from where I’d been before. There was no cage. It wasn’t some kind of nerve-wracking moment. Ocean was able to explain the do’s and don’ts of diving. You have to be smart. They are wild animals.”
He ended up in a pod of 8-foot Galapagos sharks. None came too close, he says—“within 4 or 5 feet. That was really cool.”
Swimming with sharks, like his ability to get back to surfing, like his strong relationship with Sydney, was one more step in putting that fateful day behind him. Now he looks to give back. When he goes to work at Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates, “I feel there’s a connection between amputee to amputee. Doctors who are book smart tell you what’s going on, but they don’t actually know.” It makes a difference, “to be able to say to a patient, I understand what you’re going through. And it feels pretty good to know you’ve helped in some way.”
Ocean Ramsey practices the proper technique for fending off, not fighting, on this tiger shark.
Bowthorpe, the paddleboarder who rescued Cook, received the Carnegie Medal for Heroism in September 2016 and was honored again in a ceremony with Gov. David Ige that November. In the months and years to follow, he kept in touch. “The experience we shared of fighting off a shark together—that bonds us in a way that is difficult to explain,” he says. “Friends, absolutely. Brothers is probably appropriate in a way. We keep in touch and our families keep in touch.”
Bowthorpe credits his decision to head toward Cook rather than hustling to shore to his months with Ramsey, the North Shore marine biologist, and Oliphant, his fellow cameraman and cinematographer. “Juan and Ocean absolutely taught me to be more comfortable. I had some experiences with great whites while surfing on the Mainland, and Tūtū told me that because of this connection, the sharks would never harm me. But from a practical/technical safety standpoint, I was at zero when I met them. Since filming Saving Jaws, I’ve trained and studied with many shark experts and shark conservationists all over the world, but Juan and Osh were absolutely my foundation and I continue to learn from them on every dive.”
Says Ramsey, who has just published What You Should Know About Sharks: Shark Language, Social Behavior, Human Interactions, and Life Saving Information: “Keoni had been coming out to film with us, filming behavior with us, filming us as individuals looking for agonistic behaviors in sharks. He’d seen Juan and me actually deter sharks, assertive sharks.”
It took three more years of shooting, including at locations around the world, but Saving Jaws was released in late 2019. The documentary, pared down to a network-friendly 59 minutes from a 200-minute director’s cut, premiered Dec. 10 at the Culver City Film Festival in Los Angeles—not one of the world’s biggest, but in a bedroom community favored by Hollywood. Five minutes before curtain, there were six people in the audience, including Bowthorpe. “It got so close to starting when all of a sudden, as the lights were dimming people started POURING into the theater,” he recalls.
That was just the beginning of a wild ride and year. (But to read about it you’ll have to wait for “The Shark Chronicles, Part II.”)
Bowthorpe lives and stays rooted in Hawai‘i, even as work takes him to the Mainland and around the world these days. He’s more than pleased to have Cook back for good. “The guy rips, and I’m just stoked we can share some waves again.”