The Shark Chronicles Part II: 5 Years After He Saved A Shark Attack Victim, A Filmmaker’s Journey
What makes one person paddle toward a violent shark attack while others flee? In the case of Keoni TeTawa Bowthorpe, the factors are many and complex, but begin with his culture and upbringing. And his sprint to help a complete stranger didn’t stop once he brought him back to the beach: After a time taking on shark preservation he’s moved forward into global conservation.
This is Part II in a series. Click here to read Part I.
“I was across the channel from this surfer,” Keoni TeTawa Bowthorpe recalls, “when I thought I heard him say something. I turned around, and right then I saw the shark pull him under. … The sounds that were happening, it could only be one thing.”
A cameraman and budding director, Bowthorpe, 33, was on a paddleboard that October day in 2015. He was taking a break from juggling jobs, parenting three children ages 3 to 5, and working on a documentary. Its working title was Saving Jaws and it was about, as HONOLULU wrote after the attack, “the tragedy of shark-finning, a practice that kills 100 million sharks a year, threatening an entire genus to make soup.”
SEE ALSO: Will Killing Sharks Finally Stop Hawai‘i’s Epidemic of Attacks?
Not even hesitating to weigh the balance of his busy life against that of the stranger 100 yards away, he paddled for Colin Cook—and soon found himself in a battle out of Moby-Dick: standing on his board, paddle at the ready as the 13-foot tiger shark swung around for another pass. But unlike Melville’s master harpooner, Queequeg, Bowthorpe had no intention of fighting the shark. From spending months with marine scientists, he’d learned what works best is deterrence.
After fending off a couple of passes, though, he realized Cook was bleeding out at his feet. And the shark wasn’t going away. “This shark just did everything different than what I’ve ever been told, or experienced, while making the documentary,” he says.
“Tell my family I love them,” gasped Cook.
That did it. “I felt a terrifying wonder. I thought of my three kids and would I ever see them again,” Bowthorpe recalls. “I said a prayer and tossed the paddle away.”
Putting Cook on his back, he began making his way to shore. But with difficulty: Cook’s weight sank the board underwater and the shark kept bumping them. He could feel its sandpaper skin under his fingers as he paddled. The journey—estimated to be 600 feet by some on the beach, 1,200 by others—took minutes. But Cook was alive when he got to shore and a quick tight tourniquet with a surf leash bought enough time to get him to the hospital.
A Catalyst for Change
Today, five years later, Cook is back on the North Shore, settling into a new job downtown as a prosthetics technician with Prosthetics & Orthotic Associates, a company that helped him with his custom carbon-fiber leg for surfing. His own rehabilitation is a story of indomitable desire to return to doing the sport he loves. He’s won three Paralympic Surf Championship titles in the above-the-knee amputation category. He’s found love and he’s moved on. “I’ve told the story so many times I just want to put it on a T-shirt.”
Bowthorpe hit a new gear after Saving Jaws premiered in 2019 at the Culver City Film Festival (now available on Amazon Prime, Hulu, Redbook, IMDb TV, etc.). Though getting the documentary done wasn’t easy—by definition, indie films never are—his career has taken off since saving Cook and receiving the Carnegie Medal for heroism in 2016. “My life has changed quite a bit” since Saving Jaws was released, he says, “and I do think that the film was kind of a catalyst for the change.”
There’s something about Bowthorpe. “He has that heroic character to him,” says Ocean Ramsey, a marine biologist whose One Ocean shark tour is part of her 20-year crusade to ban shark-finning and commercial bycatch and sportfish predation of sharks. “He’s the only one who paddled over to save Colin.”
Ramsey’s daily swims with sharks and her global efforts to save them have swelled her Instagram following to 1.1 million. They also made her the subject of Bowthorpe’s documentary, along with her partner-cinematographer (now husband), Juan Oliphant.
But in October 2015 Bowthorpe had only gone on a few dives with sharks, up close, thanks to Ramsey and Oliphant. He has since learned a lot. “Moving the camera to one hand so that I could get the shot and redirect an assertive shark with the other hand was not uncommon,” he says. “Juan began teaching me pretty early on about how to balance redirecting a shark while getting the shot, which involves something we’ve jokingly referred to as the ‘Shark Heisman.’”
Part of the shark’s impressive toolkit are “two electro-receptive sensory systems,” says Ramsey, “the ampullae of Lorenzini and the lateral line.” These allow sharks to get a fix on almost any living creature, including humans, since we emit an electrical signal. This doubles down on the occupational hazards of underwater photography, especially video. The shark’s various electrical receptors don’t just home in on batteries and motors; they stimulate a curiosity that can get out of hand quickly. (Search YouTube for “great whites and outboard motors.”)
“My main camera is a RED digital cinema camera,” says Bowthorpe. “As cameras go, the RED has a fan that makes a peculiar and noticeable sound underwater. I can’t quantify with science (other than bro science) how much the electrical impulses from this large camera”—it weighs 60 to 70 pounds depending on setup—“are dampened in the thick water housing I use. But from what I witnessed with my eyes, gun to my head, I would say the camera brought me some good luck from a ‘shark interest’ standpoint. From a filmmaking standpoint, having a shark attracted to your camera is actually a bit of a gift.”
So striking the occasional Shark Heisman and casually adjusting the head of an inquisitive shark for its close-up was becoming second nature to Bowthorpe by October 2015. But the shark that attacked Cook acted differently from the ones carefully observed and approached under One Ocean auspices. As Cook said afterward, “Most shark attacks … the shark bites and leaves. This shark wanted a meal.”
Working with Ramsey and Oliphant, Bowthorpe’s shark philosophy has evolved to be one-third science, one-third culture and one-third street smarts. “Sharks are not the mindless man-eaters they are made out to be in the mainstream media,” he says, “but they are absolutely not puppies. They demand a massive amount of respect. Every second I spend with sharks solidifies in my mind the fact that they are apex predators, the lions of the sea. Viewing them as anything else is irresponsible.”
He may have thought he knew what he was getting into. “Keoni always says, ‘Had I not gone out with you guys, I wouldn’t have paddled over,’” says Ramsey. “I’m not sure I believe him.”
Why Did Keoni Go?
Here’s where culture comes in.
“I had the opportunity growing up of spending massive amounts of time with Tūtū telling me stories about how the sharks were our ‘ohana, that we were connected to them and the ocean; no matter where we happened to live at the moment, we would get back someday,” Bowthorpe says. “It felt good, knowing that even though I was so far away from the Islands, that I still had a connection here.”
Bowthorpe’s middle name, TeTawa, is acknowledged to be Maori in origin, but his forebears traveled throughout Polynesia and settled on other islands including Fiji and Kiribati and, eventually, Hawai‘i, where his Hawaiian-language speaking tūtū was born and raised. But Bowthorpe moved away from the Islands “at a pretty young age, 7, I believe,” he says. “I landed direct in what most people would call ‘the hood’ in California. My family was rich in love and quite humble in everything else.” They ended up first in South Sacramento. “We were a stone’s throw away from G Parkway that a lot of the rappers talked about during the time. I remember my childhood buddy had bullets come down through the roof of his trailer home and we thought it was so cool.”
His parents both worked at McClellan Air Force Base as civilians. “They were quite young when I was born, and they gave up a lot for us.” He describes his mother as “highly educated, extremely hardworking, small in size and big on personality.” A “firecracker,” he says.
“My dad is a refrigerator of a man (those Polynesian genes at work), and my mom calls him Bear. He’s one of the kindest, most gentle humans I’ve ever run into. He served as the EMT on my football team when I was a pup. I remember at one of the games there was some racial slurs thrown around by a team from up the hill; as a result, the teams AND the coaches started to mix it up. I saw my dad jump into a pile of what must have been half a dozen coaches from both teams and stop that fight dead. Pop is the king of restraint, and I’ve often wished I could have more of that in me.”
He also had his lifeline to Hawai‘i. “We lived with Tūtū sometimes when things were tough, and I have always valued the time we had together. I always looked at it as a positive time in my life and that time as a gift, really.” The family lived in a neighborhood that “was also full of other Polynesians and Pacific Islanders in a similar socioeconomic situation. At school. At church.”
His parents and aunts also performed in a Polynesian troupe called The Hui. “Mom and Dad taught us everything they could culturally, and because we’re of mixed blood, it was a mix plate of many different Pacific island cultures,” says Bowthorpe.
One Ocean photographer/cinematographer Juan Oliphant redirects a tiger shark called Nikki the Queen to Bowthorpe, who gives her a pat and a slight push.
His father was featured in the fire knife segment. “He taught me how to do it when I was about 10 years old and performing at company lū‘au or the like. [It] was my first job; I made what my 10-year-old self thought was real money.”
He finished Elk Grove High School and went on his Mormon mission in Milwaukee, where he spent a few years. “Having been exposed to what we call ‘ghetto’ in Hawai‘i, or Cali,” he says, “I was not prepared for the expanse of the ghetto in Milwaukee. Just the sheer square miles of it. People living in essentially condemned housing. Jeffrey Dahmer’s house was a few blocks over. That neighborhood looked so much like a zombie movie, I don’t know how else to describe it. So it had a very oppressive, all-encompassing feeling of hopelessness there. The cops would pass through quickly, if we saw them at all. We saw many bodies but this one time sticks out: I remember walking by a dead body on the street under a blanket, laying by a fence collecting garbage.”
His assignment was helping the Hmong community. “I learned to speak the language, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever embarked upon. And a lot of what I ended up doing was translating for these incredible people, at hospitals, at court, to their neighbors. I don’t know how familiar you are with the story of the Hmong, but it is tragic. Their culture is so different from Western culture, which creates so many misunderstandings and culture clashes.” Many times he was called to translate in suspected cases of child abuse reported by teachers or social workers, where the bruising was the result of cupping, a practice common in Eastern medicine. “I was so fortunate to be able to be there and help them in some small way for a few years. It was often heartbreaking, but it was exactly what a 19-year-old-me needed. I got a crash course in having a bigger worldview, but I was still able to go get fries from McDonald’s if I wanted to,” though he had to place his orders through bulletproof glass.
After his mission, battle-tested, he took a couple of years to “explore the world and my place in it,” and then: “I metthis unforgettable girl at a random rock show. We dated a few years before I got smart and put a ring on the finger of my wife. Then we packed up our lives and moved to the Bay Area.”
SEE ALSO: 16 Fascinating Facts About Sharks in Hawai‘i Every Local Should Know
From Mean Streets to Movies
“I have a fantastic wife,” Bowthorpe says, “who convinced me to enter film school while I was attending Cal Berkeley to try and be a responsible accountant, or something that would have equally killed my soul. Film school was her idea.”
Ashley had finished up at BYU when Bowthorpe transferred to UC Berkley after community college. “She had just graduated and got a job as a teacher at a rough school in Pittsburg, California. I was focused on finishing school. I was trying to catch up, took too many credits and barely made it out alive. We were both so beat at the end of that year and my average was a 3.0 after a herculean effort to get a 4.0. Then Ashley stopped me from trying to focus on ‘the typical adult path’ I thought I had to focus on. Her words were, ‘We don’t need money. We just need happy.’ She’s a wise one.”
There was logic behind her advice, too. Bowthorpe had been helping an established director friend with a music video. The director asked him to help write the script. “We had such a blast writing and shooting it that he told me, ‘Hey, if this accounting thing ever slows down, you’re kinda a natural at this film stuff. You should give it a try.’”
Bowthorpe switched to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. But he and Ashley continued to live near her job and the studio. “The studio was in East Oakland, lots of issues with gentrification there at an insane pace. Lots of deep-rooted bad feelings, drug use, homelessness and hopelessness. I remember trying to guide my more sheltered film friends in some gnarly situations, de-escalate them, because I remembered what kind of hopelessness we were dealing with from where I grew up, and I thought several times that their inexperience would get us all killed.”
Bowthorpe says his time there helped build his character. “My life is so different now, I have keiki of my own, and Hale‘iwa ain’t South Sacramento, and it ain’t Oakland. I’m grateful for those places in my past, but I’m also grateful that my kids don’t have to deal with the same worries and concerns that I did.”
He credits his ability to thrive to his parents.
“They both worked so hard to give my sister and me the best chance we could have at life. They were quite strict in the home, highly religious—but also from a young age fostered a sense of questioning authority inside me. It was kind of a dichotomy in that way. So I would have issues with teachers or arbitrary authority figures from time to time. After university, and as an adult, I realized that they were instilling a sense of critical thinking in me.” He lists some of those learned lessons: Don’t take things at face value. Check sources. Ask why. Watch what people do, as opposed to listening to what they say. “Asking why, and watching human behavior, are likely significant parts of what make me a decent filmmaker,” he says.
And so is observing sharks: Saving Jaws would now give him a big step up into the film world.
After the Culver City premiere, where the film won Best Cinematography for feature documentary, Saving Jaws was supposed to go out to more showcases. But along came COVID-19. Bowthorpe still managed to enter a number of them, some online, and won Best Feature Documentary and Best Cinematography at the Silk Road Film Awards (others are pending). “I received an offer for Saving Jaws 2 pretty quickly after the film released on Amazon,” he says, “but shelved it as I was developing a docu-series at the same time, which I felt strongly should be my path forward.”
Hollywood kept calling, however.
“I was driving around LA one day killing time before a festival and got a call pretty much out of the blue,” he recalls. “The call was an offer for the series with more money attached to it than I’d ever handled before. I knew it would be irresponsible to navigate those deep waters alone given my own limited knowledge and skill set.”
An entertainment attorney recommended by a friend looked over the deal and suggested meeting with agencies. “They’ll help shape my career from this point,” he says. The top two largest agencies made offers; he made his choice contingent on continuing to live in Hawai‘i. “Hawai‘i is my home. It’s critical for my soul and my art to be rooted here. So having a team physically in LA that can help me bridge that geographic/psychological gap is key.”
As he develops his own slate of projects—many of which he can’t talk about—Bowthorpe has also found himself working as second-unit director and cinematographer, as well as doing underwater filming, for the Emmy-winning series, Cheer, this year. “One thing I can talk about with Netflix … it has been a joy to work on various series, including Cheer. It is rewarding to see my footage in the Emmy Award highlights of the show and to feel like I had a hand in a series that resonates with so many.”
Bowthorpe shooting the finale of the Emmy-winning Netflix series, Cheer, in Daytona Beach.
These days, Ashley Bowthorpe is doing more than cheering him on. “She and I are writing partners, producing partners, etc., etc., etc.,” Keoni Bowthorpe says. “I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that I could literally not do any of this if she wasn’t around to help me reel in the creative hurricane that happens in my brain. I think she’s probably the only person on the planet who can help me translate my vision. She’s my magic feather.”
Opportunities for random heroism still crop up, too, including one reminiscent of brave Ulysses whose feat of archery concludes Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey.
“Recently my buddy was having issues with boars eating the baby chicks at his chicken farm in the hills near Mount Ka‘ala, and I went there almost every night for a few weeks early in the COVID lockdown to help him with the issue. One day I shot two boars with one arrow. My daughter, age 5, was there and was so impressed. We went home and it’s the first thing she told everyone. My son, also 5, looked at me with a straight face and immediately told me that he knows someone who shot three boars with one arrow, and that I’d get better one day.”
A half-dozen trailers including one detailing the shark attack story described here, with extended footage (really almost a movie in itself) for Saving Jaws on Amazon Prime.
Read “The Shark Chronicles, Part I: Catching Up with a Shark Attack Victim 5 Years Later”