Shark Attack Survivor Mike Coots Became a Shark Advocate


This story originally appeared in The Inertia.

When Mike Coots was 18 years old, he was attacked by a shark. It was 1987, and it left him with one less leg. In the following years, however, Coots became something unexpected: a staunch advocate for sharks.

Now, he has a new book out that looks at some of nature’s most feared and misunderstood predators. Shark: Portraits, as the name implies, is full of some of the most incredible imagery you’ve ever seen. The photos span about eight years and were shot all over the world, from New Zealand, Australia, the Maldives, the Bahamas, Hawaii, Mexico, and Tahiti. A small sampling of those photos is included here.

“I was bodyboarding at the time of the attack,” he told me over the phone. “It was late October. We call it Sharktober here in Hawaii. I don’t know why, but it’s just more of a sharky time in the state. The waves were really good that day, but there was a foul smell when we pulled up to the beach. There were a lot of dead fish in the area, and I should have taken that as a cue not to go out. The waves were definitely going off, though, so we jumped in the water and my friends got really good rides right off the bat. I was the last one out, except for this guy that I’ve never surfed with.”

shark rising vertically

Photo: Mike Coots


‘It was like five guys sitting on my legs’

As a set appeared on the horizon, Coots was sitting up on his board. He spun around and lay down to paddle for the wave when the shark hit him.

“I remember my fingertips hitting the surface of the water,” Coots recounted. “Right when I made that movement to catch the wave, a large tiger shark came up and grabbed both of my legs and I knew I was getting attacked. I felt a lot of pressure, but zero pain.  It just felt like there were five big guys sitting on my legs. I had a fight or flight response, so I punched it in the nose.”

In the moment, Coots wasn’t exactly sure how bad the damage was. His finger was badly cut because he tried to pry the shark’s mouth open so it would release his legs, but he didn’t realize the extent of the damage until a few moments later.

“The guy that was next to me — the stranger — he was totally freaking out. He was completely white as a ghost, and he just started paddling to the beach,” Coots remembered. “I yelled ‘Shark! Go in!’ and he just kept paddling.”

Incredibly, he made it to the beach

That’s when Coots glanced back at the horizon and caught sight of his leg.

“You know when you’re paddling in a prone position,” he said, “you don’t see what’s behind you? I looked over my shoulder to check what  was wrong with my leg, and I saw that my leg was just severed right off.”

Coots did manage to get himself to the sand, despite his injuries. A little wave came, and he caught it all the way to the beach. When he got there, he attempted to stand, likely in a state of shock, not yet having fully processed the fact that his leg was missing. When he tried to stand up, he collapsed. His friends were on the beach, and they acted quickly.

“They saw me coming in with one leg and everything,” he said. “They knew I was hurt and they came really fast to my aid and dragged me up a little farther up the beach. My friend came and made a tourniquet from my leash, and then they put me in the back of a pickup truck and we hauled ass to the emergency room. I thought I was gonna die that morning on the beach. I really thought that was certainly it for me and I went into shock on the truck ride to the emergency room. As soon as I got to the ER, I passed out and I woke up pretty much 24 hours later with my family next to me. I just felt really grateful to be alive when my eyes opened in the hospital room.”

Couldn’t wait to get back on the water

Coots spent about a week in the hospital in the following days. Considering the fact that he’d had his leg bitten off by a shark, that is not all that long. The bite resulted in an almost perfect amputation, which helped the surgeons repair the damage. His doctors told him that if everything went as expected, he could be back in the water within a month or so, and he took them at their word. One would be forgiven, though, if they felt reservations about him going in the ocean again. But for Coots, that wasn’t ever an option.

“There was no resentment toward sharks. I just knew it was a freak accident,” he told me when I asked him whether he’d considered staying out of the water. “I had spent so much time in my life in the ocean, like almost every day, all day as much as I could if I wasn’t at school. I was a statistical anomaly and I was not on their menu. It was so good to get back in the water — it helped get some normality back in my life because I could go right back into the ocean and still ride waves and get barreled. I didn’t really skip a beat and didn’t get depressed or anything like that. I feel very fortunate. I had no nightmares or anything.”

Took up photography during recovery

Now, over three decades after his attack, Coots has dedicated much of his life to protecting sharks of all species. He took up photography in the wake of the attack. “It was a blessing, as it brought me to photography, which I learned during my downtime when I was injured,” he wrote. “I love everything about capturing images. Finding the light, building relationships, and seeking out the unordinary are what I base my passions on. ”

shark at the surface

Photo: Mike Coots


His book is a way to hopefully get the masses to look at sharks in a different light; not as murderous creatures stalking humans, but as an incredibly beautiful example of evolution. The book is years in the making. Thousands of photos taken over nearly a decade culled down to 200. For a long time, he’s been showcasing his work on Instagram, but Coots wanted to create something a little more tangible.

“It hasn’t really been done before,” he said of Shark: Portraits. “There are a lot of books on sharks: science books, kids’ books, information about sharks. But we’re really trying to show sharks in a beautiful, authentic way.”

Coots was part of a book by Kai Lenny — one of his photos ended up being used for the cover — so he had the contact of someone at Rizzoli Publishing, the agency that published Shark: Portraits. Rizzoli also published a book showcasing surfer Danny Fuller’s photography in the past, and Fuller put in a good word for Coots, too.

Within a few days, he was in talks with the publishers. After months on end of killing his darlings, layout meetings, and all the other stuff that comes as part of the publishing process, they had a pretty good idea of what the final product was going to look like.

A different side of sharks

“I wanted to show a different side of sharks by using portraiture techniques,” Coots explained. “I use a portrait lens underwater. It’s very unorthodox. Most people use fisheye or really wide-angle lenses, but probably 90 percent of the book is shot with a 50mm lens.”

That choice of lens really did change the feel of Shark: Portraits, but it also meant that Coots had to get very close in order to take his photos. But Coots wasn’t ever all that nervous being face-to-face with them.

“I’d say I’m relatively comfortable most of the time,” he said. “I do get a little nervous, like when I do deeper dives, but that’s more the technicalities of scuba diving, like your equipment. It’s not as much about the sharks. I’ve always tried to dive in clear water… I mean, there’s definitely a healthy respect to it, but I don’t think I jump in the water scared. If I were to do that, I probably shouldn’t be jumping in the water, because I should be listening to that instinct, you know? I’m comfortable in the ocean, comfortable with sharks, and reading sharks. I just trust that process.”

During our conversation, I wondered whether Coots’ passion for shark conservation might be some sort of coping mechanism for what he’s been through.

“That’s hard for me to answer because I’m so connected about this journey,” he answered. “Being a shark attack survivor and being able to actually do something to help the health and the wellbeing of the oceans in any little way that I can for how much it’s given me. I feel a sense of indebtedness… The ocean has given me the most incredible life and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s just it’s been a really wonderful, wild ride.”

‘Sharks are beautiful’

In speaking with Coots, I was keenly aware of just how much admiration he has for sharks. He hopes that his book might change the way we view them. Years of bad press — and films like Jaws — have skewed the public’s perception of what a shark actually is.

“Sharks are beautiful. They’re not always just going after something to bite with their eyes rolled back and their teeth protruding from their mouth,” Coots said. “The majority of the time, they’re just swimming beautifully under the water.  I wanted to shoot them in a portrait way so that maybe you can see a little bit of yourself in them. I see light and intelligence in these animals. If you can see a little bit of that in something, it makes you curious. That’s really the key, I think, in helping protect a species: having that compassion and empathy for that animal. That’s really what I hope the book does.”

Find Shark: Portraits at and on Amazon.