Mike Coots has not let having his leg being bitten off by a shark tame his love for the ocean. Not only does he still surf, but he is now also a shark conservationist.
Born and raised in Hawai, Mike Coots grew up by the ocean and spent almost every day in its seemingly familiar blue waters. An athlete at heart, when he wasn't surfing he was running. All of that could have changed in the blink of an eye if it wasn't for Coots' courage and determination. When he was just 18-years-old, he lost his leg in a shark attack. He was preparing to ride a particularly promising wave when it happened. Just as fingertips grazed the water, he felt immense pressure on both his legs. He soon realized he was trapped in the jaws of a tiger shark and began to punch its face till it let go of him and retreated into the waters that had betrayed him. Coots somehow managed to haul himself back up on the board and began to paddle back towards the safety of the shore. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed something moving towards him and panicked, thinking the shark was back for a second bite.
To his shock, he discovered it was his own leg that was floating towards him, still spurting blood. Coots was soon rushed to the hospital. Several stitches and staples later, the grueling process of recovery and rehabilitation began. Despite all the trauma he endured, the athlete in Coots refused to wither away. He found himself thinking about the ocean again. This time, in a whole new way. In addition to thoughts of surfing again, Coots could not help wondering why the shark attacked him. His curiosity led him down an interesting path that instilled compassion in his heart, for the same creature that tore his limb away from him.
He learned that over 70 million sharks were being killed every year just so elite Asians could enjoy shark fin soup, and that number unsettled him. Today, almost 20 years after the incident, Coots is a shark conservationist and spends a lot of time swimming in shark-infested waters to study them up close. A skilled photographer, he also takes professional photos of them. Coots is quick to defend their perceived ruthlessness and explains that they are not as violent as you think. He continues to maintain this stand even after a terrifying encounter with a Great White in March last year.
Coots, who managed to capture the whole incident on a GoPro he was holding into the water from a boat said, "When I filmed the footage this Great White was coming right up to me - literally millimeters away. It was literally like hanging with dinosaurs. It's one of the coolest things you can do on earth. You can just feel the vibe from this apex predator." He certainly does not have any residual fear from his past encounter with a tiger shark, given that he said, "Filming them actually calms me down." Adding, "As a photographer, I was just focusing on getting the shot and capturing the movement."
Even though Coots jumped back into the ocean as soon as doctors cleared him to, the journey there was not easy. Being an athlete and 18, adjusting to life without a leg was a daunting thought. It was only following a visit from a man with a prosthetic leg that Coots began to feel optimistic again. He realized that he would definitely be able to walk again. But, the incredible young man did more than just walk. He was soon running and surfing with the help of specially designed prosthetics. Proving that tenacity plays a very important role in recovery and even creating a new normal.
Coots recounted the unforgettable moment when his life almost turned upside down: “I remember my eyes opening, and I’m in this dream-like state. My mom is looking at the doctor, and the doctor looks at my mom. My mom tells me, ‘Mike, you lost your leg.’ I was thinking that they were telling me I was gonna die in a couple minutes, and I had to say my last wishes. I was like, I know. I saw it come off. I was there." He continued, "Everybody started laughing, and I think that was kind of my ‘It’s gonna be okay’ moment. Once my family realized I was going to be able to deal with this limb loss with a little bit of humor, we’ll just take it one step at a time.”
Even as the base realities of his life began to shift, Coots found it harder to cope with not being able to do what he loved than having only one leg to stand on. He said, “The hardest part about the shark attack wasn’t nearly losing a limb. It was being out of the water for nearly a month and not riding waves with my friends." Adding, “It’s crazy how something with carbon and steel can dictate your life. Your leg is your transportation. It’s your self-worth, your health, your self-esteem, your way to get to work, your way to see your family. It really is everything." Yet, even without it, Coots has managed to lead a life that is far more meaningful and rich than most people who have the advantage of having all their limbs intact.