Underwater photographer feels sense of ‘deep responsibility’ for sharks, despite loss of limb

This dynamic image of a hammerhead shark is part of the Mike Coots photography exhibit, which will be on view at Foss Waterway Seaport through July 22. Photo by Mike Coots

In 1998, Mike Coots was living in Kauai, just out of high school, when he experienced a waking nightmare. He was bodyboarding in 30 feet of water when a huge tiger shark rose out of the depths under his board, clenched his legs in its powerful jaws, and began to thrash. As a cloud of blood blossomed around him, he reached into the maw of serrated teeth, trying to free his legs. He instinctively punched the shark in the nose, and it let go. Looking at his hand, he saw white bone and loose tissue. He began racing frantically after a companion toward shore when, “My right leg started doing this spasm; I thought it was the shark trying to finish me off. Then I looked over my shoulder and it wasn’t that; it was my leg perfectly amputated off.” He awoke in the hospital the next morning — with no inkling that his future would forever be intertwined with that of sharks. 

Coots recounts this story in “Mike Coots: Shark-Bite Survivor and Shark Advocate,” a video produced by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). One month after the harrowing attack, he was back in the ocean. In the 20 years since the attack, he has become a world-renowned advocate for sharks, an ocean conservationist, a competitive surfer and an undersea photographer of uncanny originality. Now 38, he creates images of sharks that communicate an almost eerie intimacy with the apex (top-of-the-food-chain) predator that once nearly took his life — but is now in dire need of human protection. 

An exhibit of Coots’ photographs is currently on display at the Foss Waterway Seaport. “Kuleana,” the title of this exhibit, is a Hawaiian word meaning “deep responsibility,” not only to oneself but to one’s community. For the Hawaii native, “community” extends to endangered species that live beneath the ocean’s surface.

Photographer and surfer Mike Coots lost a leg to a shark attack, but has become an advocate for shark preservation. Photo by Mike Coots

Coots was unaware a shark advocacy movement existed until about five years after his attack, when a fellow shark-bite survivor, in Florida, asked him to get involved. Then, his eyes were opened to the abhorrent practice of shark-finning, which currently kills up to 73 million sharks per year, mainly for the Asian market. “In China, shark-fin soup is a delicacy, like steak or lobster in America or Australia,” he told surfing writer  Chris Binns. “[It] offers little nutritional value, but has become a status symbol and is driving the fin trade. Because sharks are apex predators the rest of the flesh is full of mercury and basically inedible. Longline fishermen catch sharks, cut their dorsal fins off, dump the body back into the water and the shark swims around for a couple of days, rudderless basically, dying a slow death. If we can create more awareness of this in Asia then hopefully the demand will drop, and the killing will stop.” It is estimated that the world’s shark population has declined by 90 percent in recent decades, and up to 100 million sharks are killed every year by commercial fisheries. Decimation of this apex predator threatens ocean diversity. 

Coots’ advocacy helped pass legislation that made Hawaii the first state in the country to ban the sale and possession of shark fins. His photographic images of sharks, and his status as a survivor, give him a unique platform to be a defender of sharks. “In the water, that’s where I feel completely at home,” he says in the PADI video. “I know that strong visual storytelling can change people. That’s the beauty of photography. I wanted to change people’s perception of sharks, and make a difference. I wanted to prove that the tiger shark that attacked me wasn’t a monster, but instead was worth protecting.”

In the beginning, he was nervous about diving with sharks, but photography helped develop his sense of ease and confidence around them because the camera gave him something to do with his hands — a way of providing a fractional, psychological distance between him and his underwater subject. At college in Santa Barbara, Calif., he studied portraiture photography, a skill that translates startlingly well to sharks: “The eyes are the soul of the creature,” he said in an interview with journalist Shelby Stanger. Documenting eye-to-eye the species that almost killed him, he saw that “these guys are intelligent, not indiscriminate.” His portraits of sharks are awe-inspiring, capturing their mystery, majesty, the potential energy barely contained in the bullet-shaped anatomy, and their utter dominance of the undersea world — as well as individually distinct personalities. Our dread of sharks is misguided, he says, emanating from a primal fear of the deep, dark void. 

The photographer and conservationist is a surfing icon in Kauai, where he lives. A sponsor in Iceland creates a custom carbon foot for him, which he wears when competing as a top-flight adaptive athlete. A body boarder before the tiger shark took his leg, he took up longboard surfing afterward, and even designed his first prosthetic limb for surfing (experimenting with prosthetic feet he bought on eBay, 10 for $300). He gives his time to clinics for new amputees, including children who have lost limbs, to share the knowledge that they can still enjoy full athleticism in and on the water. Surfing is “an amazing sport for amputees,” he told Stanger. 

“I had a lot of questions when I first lost my limb, and I know all new amputees do, so I always try to help them find a sense of peace, and let them know that losing a limb isn’t the end of the world, you can still do anything an able-bodied person can do,” he said. As for advocating for a species still regarded by many as a man-killer, he said, “It’s kind of a no-brainer. If you have the opportunity to raise awareness about a species on the brink of extinction, then you should probably make the most of it and see if you can’t create something good out of something bad.”  For Coots, all of the world is his element.

Coots’ photos will be on view through July 22 at the Foss Waterway Seaport at 705 Dock St., Tacoma. For more information, visit www.fosswaterwayseaport.org or www.facebook.com/Mike-Coots-page-299959580381679.

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