A photographer has recalled the day a shark bit his leg off and why he now fights to advocate for the creatures through portraiture — despite his life-changing injuries.
In 1997, photographer and conservationist Mike Coots survived a tiger shark attack in Hawaii, resulting in him needing a prosthetic leg for the rest of his life.
The then-18-year-old Coots was boogie boarding in waters off Hawaii when a tiger shark grabbed him by his right leg and bit it clean off in a blood-drenched attack.
This is our ambassador Mike Coots – photographer, surfer, shark attack survivor turned into shark conservationist. We got these shots while diving amongst Mo'orea's sharks and corals – two essential species that keep our ocean in balance. #savethesharks pic.twitter.com/XLHv04w6P4
— Coral Gardeners (@coral_gardeners) October 17, 2022
But in an unlikely twist, Coots went on to become a shark conservationist despite his brush with death.
More than two decades later, Coots still regularly dives fearlessly to take breathtaking portraits of the predators. He now uses his skills as a photographer to raise awareness about sharks and give the creatures a voice.
‘Completely Blindsided Me’
In a new interview with Chris Latronic at KHON2 News, Coots has recalled the harrowing attack as a teen and why he has since dedicated his life to shark conservancy.
“I went surfing with my friends when I was 18, paddling like any other morning and a tiger shark came up out of nowhere. It completely blindsided me and grabbed onto both of my legs,” Coots tells KHON2 News.
“I didn’t feel any pain whatsoever. I felt like I was almost watching it happen to somebody else — it was like an out-of-body experience in a way.
“I felt an incredible amount of pressure on my legs. I punched it a few times on the nose and let go and that pressure was released. I got back on my board and started paddling in.
“I looked over my shoulder thinking it was a shark finishing me off and instead it was my leg severed right off.”
‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time.’
Before the attack, the surfer-photographer says that he was “indifferent” to the predators in the ocean.
“I was indifferent [to sharks]. I spent time in the water — almost every day — and I knew it was their home,” Coots explains.
“But after the attack, there was no animosity [towards them]. I just knew wrong place, wrong time.”
The life-changing incident spurred Coots to learn more about the species and ultimately become a popular shark photographer and conservationist. In his images, he looked past human fears and depicts the beauty of these powerful animals.
“After I got attacked, I read a lot of shark attack books. I knew a lot about what sharks were doing to us, but I didn’t know a lot about what sharks were doing to us,” he says.
“I also watched a documentary about sharks and it blew me away — the importance of them in the ecosystem and why we need them for a healthy planet.
“And I feel compelled in my unique situation to do something.”
Coots’ photography book Shark: Portraits is now available to pre-order.