Karri Larson is on a mission.
Ever since she was struck and seriously wounded by a leaping barracuda while kayaking in the backcountry off Big Pine Key she has become a vocal supporter of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the civilian arm of the agency, and is working to better equip the group for shallow-water rescues.
The Key West resident was kayaking with her boyfriend, Michael Hinojosa, near Howe Key in October when a barracuda jumped and slammed into her, tearing a large wound in her side, puncturing her lung and shattering a rib.
The fish, which Larson estimates was at least 4 feet long, tossed her into the water, 5 feet from the kayak. It was only after Larson, a former paramedic with eight years of experience, crawled back into the kayak did she realize how badly she was hurt.
"We thought we were prepared for everything," Larson said. "We had the first aid kit, water, lights, food, compass, whistle, everything. If we were stranded on a mangrove island for the night, we would have been fine."
What Larson hadn't foreseen was lying in the kayak while Hinojosa held her side and tried to stem the flood of blood that was saturating every piece of cloth they had.
As the Coast Guard worked to triangulate the couple's position, they were unsure if their small response boats would be able to reach them. A Coast Guard helicopter from Miami was called.
At some point between 5:14 p.m. and 6:20 p.m., TowBoat U.S. Capt. Kevin Freestone, who heard reports of the strike over his radio, grabbed an EMT and paramedic on a nearby dock and headed to the scene.
Freestone reached the couple, and his wife soon followed in a flats boat, Larson said. He pulled Larson onto his boat, which was damaged by the flats, and transferred her to Dolphin Marina on Little Torch Key, where the Trauma Star helicopter was waiting to take her to Ryder Trauma Center in Miami.
"What can we do better?" Larson asked later. "What can I do better? Since then, Larson has been meeting with the Coast Guard, Monroe County Sheriff's Office and other first responders to answer those questions.
"What the Coast Guard explained, and that I now get, is that they have this amazing resource in the Coast Guard Auxiliary," Larson said. She initially was looking for a way to get the Coast Guard sectors in Key West, Marathon and Islamorada some flats boats, but learned it would be faster and cheaper to expand the auxiliaries, Larson said. Now she is in the process of joining the Coast Guard Auxiliary and has started a website, http://www.whenfishattack.com, which seeks to educate the public to the challenges of shallow-water rescues.
Since Larson began her campaign, flats boat owners have come forward and joined the Big Pine Key Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla, but more are needed, Cmdr. Don Kittsmiller said.
"We currently have some Carolina skiffs, but our biggest problem is in the summertime when everyone leaves to go back up north," Kittsmiller said.
There are flotillas in Key West, Marathon, Islamorada and Ocean Reef as well as Big Pine Key. How well those flotillas are outfitted depends on which volunteers are in town at the time, Kittsmiller said.
"We're always looking for people with shallow-water boats," Kittsmiller said.
Larson's story recently aired on the Discovery Channel and she has been featured on CBS' "The Early Show."
For more information about the Coast Guard Auxiliary, go to www.a07013.uscgaux.info.