By Kim Constantinesco
For surfers, the best wave of their life is always “still out there.”
That’s no different for Mike Coots, who survived a shark attack at 18 years old. A one-time body boarder with professional aspirations, Coots, ironically enough, never stood up on a surf board until he lost his leg in the trauma.
With a no-fear attitude and a deep attachment to the ocean, Coots paddled back out to the shark-infested waters with a new found love for photography and surfing after nearly losing his life.
Now 36, the Hawaii native hasn’t just put his experience in the past. He’s using it to propel others who lose their limbs, convincing them that the best wave is, in fact, still out there.
A ‘Blindside Attack’
Coots grew up on the laid-back island of Kauai. Fresh out of high school and catching some waves with friends one early October morning, he noticed an extra fishy aroma in the air. It smelled like a clump of dead fish, or rather, a buffet table for sharks.
Not an unusual smell, Coots and three friends still paddled out. He let two buddies catch the early waves as he and another pal waited until the last set came in.
As Coots made that initial paddle stroke with his arm to corral the wave, a tiger shark swam up from underneath him and grabbed a hold.
“It was a blindside attack, like a submarine had come up from underneath you,” he said. “The shark started shaking me back and forth like a dog with a piece of meat. I punched it a couple of times, and it let go and went back underwater and disappeared.”
Coots looked at his friend, who was ghost white by this point, and paddled back to the beach as fast as he could.
“When I looked at my hand with that first paddle, it was split open like a potato. I could see the bone and everything,” Coots said. “A couple more strokes and then my right leg started doing this weird spasm. I thought the shark was finishing me off. I looked back and it wasn’t a shark. It was my leg severed off perfectly at the shin. A surgeon couldn’t have done a better job.”
His friends took the leash of his body board and contrived a tourniquet. They threw him into the bed of a pickup truck and high-tailed it to the hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery. He woke up the next morning an amputee, but grateful to still be alive.
Respecting the Bite
Coots endured a few months of painful rehabilitation. The hardest part for him was adjusting to his new prosthetic leg, which often rubbed up against his residual limb. However, a month after he was done with rehab, he got back into his home away from home — the ocean.
“Let’s say I was a tourist to Hawaii, got off the plane and put my toes in the water, and a shark attacked me,” Coots said. “I might have different feelings toward getting back in. Growing up in the water, day in and day out, it just comes with the territory. Sharks are part of the ocean just as much as anything else.”
Not only did Coots submerge himself again, but as he researched sharks (“because I was curious why I got attacked”), he became an advocate for protecting the creature.
“I never really thought of sharks themselves as being really good for our ocean,” he said.
Six years ago, he was contacted by a shark attack survivor from Florida, who wanted him to start using his platform to speak up.
“I had no idea about shark skinning or the real role that sharks play in our ecosystem,” he said. “One hundred million sharks a year are killed for their fins.”
The Ocean Through a Lens
In the midst of trying to change the general populations’ attitude toward sharks, Coots moved to Santa Barbara five years after the attack to go to photography school. He wasn’t into the craft until the year after he lost his leg. With a lot of friends advancing in their surf careers, Coots wasn’t in the water as much, but he was still captivated by the beauty of the ocean and the outlet it provided.
“When you’re shooting, you’re looking for the same kinds of conditions as surfing a lot of times,” he said. “You want off shore winds and good swells. A lot is dictated by the weather. The challenge comes in being in the right place at the right time. Just like with riding waves, luck favors the prepared.”
The move to the mainland and a new found focus through the eye of a lens gave Coots new life.
“I don’t know that I’d be a professional photographer today if it wasn’t for the attack,” he said.
As he took pictures of the ocean, he found that he had another itch to scratch in the water. Surfing was never something he got into when he had both of his legs.
The waves in Santa Barbara weren’t friendly to body boarders, but to beginner surfers, they were pristine.
“The spot where I was staying was absolutely perfect to learn how to surf. It was a hot sunny day, and I stood up on my third wave,” Coots said. “There was no turning back after that.”
Along with shark advocacy, photography, and surfing, Coots volunteers at Friends of Bethany, a non-profit formed after pro surfer Bethany Hamilton lost her arm in a shark attack at 13 years old. Coots sat on the board of the foundation until just last year, before a busy schedule swallowed the necessary time he needed to be a board member.
Through surf camps, retreats, and conferences, young people who survive tragic accidents are offered hope and advice. Coots is the perfect person to offer a branch of that.
In fact, he is close friends with Hamilton and her family, and the day she was attacked, he rushed to her bedside.
“Her brother called me that day, and said, ‘I don’t know if she’s going to make it.’ I jumped in my car to go to hospital, and as she came to out of surgery, there was a moment she came out of this hazy fog, and no body else was around,” Coots said. “We started talking about being an amputee. She thought she’d never be able to surf again.”
Coots helped guide her through her transition of becoming an amputee. He thinks of her as a little sister, and today, the two surf together all the time.
“I really admire the way she lives her life. She definitely doesn’t just talk the talk. She walks the walk, too,” he said.
Coots is walking the walk as well. It’s a different kind of walk from his earlier years, but a more meaningful one. For the people he offers hope to, he tells them it’s all a matter of being fearless.
“As hard and difficult as it may be, you can find a lot of pleasure in challenges,” Coots said. “Getting out of your comfort zone is how you grow and I think a lot of able-bodied people get stuck in a rut. They think, I can’t do ‘X’ because I don’t have ‘Y’. If you’re a challenged athlete, you have to figure out the work-arounds. Challenges give you life and joy. They give you self-worth when you accomplish.”
Whether you’re after the perfect wave, or figuring out how to navigate a new staircase on one leg, the victory comes in the attempt. And if it doesn’t work out, there will always be another wave.
Just ask Mike Coots.