There are those who let traumatic moments break them and others who allow those moments to shape who they were meant to be. When surfer, Mike Coots, lost his leg from a shark attack at the age of 18, he used the experience to catapult his life to new heights. He knew that this shark attack was not a reason to view sharks as ocean monsters. He dove head first back into the waters to protect the animal that took his leg and rerouted his entire life.
Life in Hawaii
As a photographer, diver, surfer, shark advocate, and amputee, Mike Coots lives a life full of passion. Kauai, HI, is where he was born, raised, and currently resides, proof of his natural devotion to the ocean. Much of Hawaiian life is spent in its surrounding waters, a connection Mike holds dear. He described his first memory of the ocean as a child when his grandmother pushed him into a wave at Poipu beach at five years old. Living in that special moment, he hardly could imagine that just thirteen years later would be his last surf on his own two legs.
When Mike was 18, he was attacked by a tiger shark while bodyboarding on his native coast. Upon the shark’s departure, he noticed his right leg was missing, but he was lucky to be alive. Years after his recovery and rehabilitation, Mike shifted his journey into steadily becoming one of the fiercest shark advocates and conservationists.
Mike acknowledges his access to American medicine being a reason he can feel comfortable in his body and continue living the way he wants to. In many parts of the world, amputees do not have the same chance at jumping back into life with well-designed prosthetics such as his. His custom-made carbon fiber prosthetic leg enables him to still enjoy surfing and diving.
Diving into Shark Life
After the attack, he explored books and other information about the apex species swimming at the top of the food chain to understand this creature that is feared by so many humans. Roughly ten years into life as an amputee, he got a call from a fellow shark attack survivor Debbie Salamone. This is when his shark advocacy truly took off. Once he listened to her lay out the human causes of the severe decline shark species are experiencing, he knew he could have a powerful role in supporting the cause.
Declining Keystone Species
Sharks are a keystone species, meaning their health and populations are indicators of the health and population of all other species in the ecosystem. Mike felt empowered to protect this species that declines annually by more than 70 million because of the cultural practice of consuming shark fin soup. In the soup, all flavors come from other ingredients, while the shark fin is merely to add texture. There is minimal nutritional value, and the presence of the soup on a menu is for nothing other than to display the status of the event or venue. Using species of the deep for such shallow actions is disgraceful. Mike’s goal is to use his story, photography, and ambition to shift the mindset of people in order to protect this invaluable animal.
While bycatch and environmental changes to their habitat are also impacting populations, overfishing for shark fin soup is the leading cause of plummeting numbers. Mike, along with other shark attack survivors, was present in the fight to pass the Shark Conservation Act. Officially passed in 2011, Mike and the other survivors fought successfully to provide legal support to protect sharks in United States waters. Though these animals nearly caused the death of those who were protecting them, understanding this species and environment gave the survivors courage to stand up for these essential aquatic beings. Further actions are being encouraged by survivors around the world to create protected sanctuary areas for sharks and, when there is shark fishing, for it to be done in line with sustainable practices.
Art Has Power
Mike Coots turned a bad situation into a wake-up call to protect an important part of the oceanic environment and ecosystem. His storytelling through photography gives us a way to connect to the ocean and the sharks in it. Photography has the power to evoke strong emotional connections to places and moments not everyone has the chance to experience for themselves, and that is exactly the beauty of Mike’s work.
Everyone has a unique experience with varying traumas. Mike Coots shows us his way of healing. Check out his photography
Support his efforts to protect sharks by purchasing his prints through the links above.
Shark attack survivors are a reason for shark lives being saved.