Shark attack survivor Mike Coots back in the water
The way Mike Coots remembers it, the shark had latched onto his leg and was shaking him back and forth, “like a dog would with some meat”.
There was no pain. Just a lot of pressure. And even more blood, forming a red slick in the salty water around him.
Coots hit the tiger shark in the head repeatedly until it released him from its grip.
It wasn’t until the then-18-year-old was paddling his board towards shore at his home in Hawaii that Coots realised his right lower leg was simply gone.
“My right leg started spasming and shaking, and I looked over my shoulder,” he recalls.
“I remember instinctively thinking ‘Oh no, the shark is grabbing me again, why else would my leg be shaking?’ I looked over my shoulder and the leg was just gone, severed off. I think it was spasming from such a traumatic amputation, so fast. It was like out of the
movies, like blood squirting out the middle and just a perfect, perfect severed bite.”
He managed to catch a wave to shore, with his worried friends by his side.
“I tried to stand up. Without a foot, you know, you can’t stand up. I fell back in the sand,” he said.
“My friend took my boogie board leash and made a tourniquet to help slow the bleeding down.”
Coots, now 34, might seem like an unlikely candidate to go on and become an activist campaigning to save sharks.
But that’s exactly what he has done, in between continuing to surf – with a prosthetic leg – and snapping pictures for publications such as The Wall Street Journal and the Discovery Channel in his job as a professional photographer.
The Kauai native’s Instagram page is filled with images of him surfing Hawaii’s breaks, swimming with sharks, and even one humorous image of a plastic shark beside a toy diver, which has its right leg missing.
In his role as an ambassador for Pew Environment Group, Coots campaigns for a change in legislation to ban the practice of shark finning, in which fishermen remove a shark’s fin before discarding the animal, alive, in the ocean.
Without their fins, the sharks are unable to move effectively and either suffocate or are eaten by other predators.
Coots also said he was opposed to Western Australia’s controversial shark cull, announced by Premier Colin Barnett’s government late last year after seven fatal shark attacks in three years in WA waters.
Coots realises people may think it’s odd for a shark-attack survivor to go on to campaign to save the animals.
“It goes along with being in the water. It’s also an opportunity to create something positive,” he said.
“It’s just sharks, that’s their place in the ocean. I think maybe I’d have more resentment if it was just something dumb that I did or something dumb that somebody else did, but that’s just what sharks do.”
Under Western Australia’s controversial shark cull plan, professional fishermen would be paid to catch, shoot or bait large sharks onto large hooks within designated kill zones one kilometre off the coast.
Coots said he had been monitoring the debate in Australia and, while fatal shark attacks were tragic, he believed the shark cull was not the right solution.
“I 100 per cent disagree with that [the shark cull],” he said.
“I think it’s a total a knee-jerk reaction. I really think instead of setting up those hooks and going out and shooting the sharks, they should be tagging the sharks.
“The species are very old and we know very little about them. I just don’t think it sends the right message to the world that if there’s any perceived threat, even if it’s such a minute threat, that we shouldn’t just go and kill things that we don’t like in nature. It’s not co-existence. Coexistence is not shooting a bullet in the head of a fish that’s pre-dated the dinosaurs.”
In his role with Pew Environment Group, he said he shared his story with politicians in the US to change legislation.
Just two months after he was attacked by the tiger shark in 1997, Coots said he was back in the water, at the same beach.
“It was basically the same exact spot. And it wasn’t because I’m like, ‘Oh I’ve got to get back on the horse’. It was more the waves were good at that spot, so I ended up my first surf was right there at the same beach,” he said.
“For me, because the ocean was such a part of my life, that was the most difficult time of the attack, being out of the water while the staples and stitches were healing.
“It’s kind of weird. I grew up as a boogie boarder so I didn’t actually start stand-up surfing until after the attack. I really don’t know what it’s like to have two good feet on the board.”