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Academy Student Saves Surfer From Shark Attack

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Brando Keoni Bowthorpe paddling Colin Cook back to shore. According to bystanders on the beach, the splash in front is said to be the shark’s tail fin thrashing about, as it positioned itself between the surfers and the shore. Photo by Glen Fowlie.

On Oct. 9, former Academy of Art University student Brando Keoni Bowthorpe headed to Leftovers, a beach that’s a half-mile from his home on Oahu’s North Shore. Though he’s an avid surfer, that day, Bowthorpe went out on his stand up paddle board. As he ventured into the ocean, he had no inkling that his life—and that of Colin Cook, a fellow surfer he’d never met—was about to change forever.

“It was a picture-perfect morning,” said Bowthorpe, who majored in filmmaking at the Academy but is currently taking a break from his studies. “The water was postcard blue, my friends were out, and we were all just enjoying life. The waves weren’t huge, but they were fun.”

After a few hours, the wind picked up and Bowthorpe’s friends paddled in for the day. He and Cook were the only ones still in the water when a large set rolled in.

“It was bigger than anything we’d seen all morning, so we both paddled out towards the horizon,” Bowthorpe said. “I caught a wave and Colin caught a wave. After that, I was ready to go home.”

He was heading for shore when he heard something behind him. He turned around to see a large shark pulling Cook under the water. (He later learned it was a 13- foot tiger shark.) Without hesitating, Bowthorpe started paddling to the struggling surfer. 

“Colin was screaming for help, but when he saw me, he calmed right down,” said Bowthorpe. “I could see that his leg was gone.”

In addition to incredible courage, Bowthorpe drew on his knowledge of shark behavior to save Cook. For the past six months, he’s been shooting a documentary called Saving Jaws and working with scientists who study sharks in their natural habitat. He hopes the film will help dispel common myths about these ancient animals and save them from extinction, a real possibility due to overfishing. 

“Shark attacks are extremely rare,” said Bowthorpe. “They normally don’t like humans and take off. This shark was behaving in an unusually aggressive way.”

When Bowthrope reached Cook, he tossed him his paddle board leash. But Cook’s hands had been severely wounded during the attack, so he couldn’t grab it. Bowthrope noticed the shark, which had been circling in the distance, suddenly accelerate directly for them. 

Knowing that a shark’s nose is highly sensitive, he tried to strike it there with his paddle. He managed to hit the shark between its nose and dorsal fin. The shark retreated; Bowthorpe ditched his paddle and lay down on his board. Cook somehow mustered the strength to climb on his back. The board started to sink from their weight, but Bowthrope paddled for the beach with all his might.

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(L–R) Colin Cook and Brando Keoni Bowthorpe. Photo by Rasa Fournier.

“I couldn’t see the shark, but I could feel it moving under us,” he said. “One time I felt its skin, which was like sandpaper, brush against my hand. After talking to some scientists since the attack, I think we were dealing with a starving, desperate predator.”

Bowthorpe was afraid Cook would pass out and slide off the board, so he kept yelling at him to stay awake. He managed to catch a large wave and eventually made it to shore where Cook was rushed to Queens Medical Center on the South Shore of Oahu. According to Bowthorpe, it wasn’t until he visited Cook in the hospital that the reality of the ordeal they’d survived sank in. 

“His parents basically tackled me when I walked in the room,” said Bowthorpe, who has three young children. “That’s when the gravity of the situation really hit me. I thought about my own kids. It makes you really grateful.”

He called Cook “a warrior” who is staying strong during his long recovery process in his hometown of Rhode Island. Friends and family set up a GoFundMe page (https://www.gofundme.com/surfcolin) to help cover some of Cook’s extensive medical expenses, which include a specialized prosthetic for his lost leg that will enable him to fulfill his dream of returning to surfing. 

Bowthorpe said he and his new friend will always share a special bond. “This has turned into such a positive experience that I never could have imagined,” he added.