Why being bitten by a shark was the best thing that’s ever happened to Hawaiian ocean photographer and surfer Mike Coots.
Mike Coots is an enigma, the sort one might come across once in a blue moon. The odds of meeting someone like him are about as rare as getting struck twice by lightning or bitten by a shark (the likelihood of which is one in 11.5 million)—which as luck would have it, happened to Coots in the fall of 1997.
“It was seriously the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says, quite seriously. To consider this statement—how anyone could count the loss of a limb as luck—is to begin unraveling the paradox that is Mike Coots, a Kaua‘i photographer who smiles a lot and pauses to laugh in situations when most others would frown.
The young bodyboarder had aspirations of going pro when the attack happened, but rather than let the grievances of the life-changing incident consume him, Coots found a way to see light in the darkness, find opportunities in those he lost, and afford purpose to it all.
It’s crazy how literally in seconds, things can change.
Though the attack did have its fair share of gory details—“I looked at my leg, and it was perfectly amputated off, squirting blood like out of a horror movie”—mostly Coots remembers “having chicken skin, like when you see a centipede and get that initial creepy feeling. … I didn’t feel any pain, just a lot of pressure.”
The moments that followed were a blur: the leash that was made into a tourniquet and tied around his leg; the race to the hospital in the back of a pickup; the hand of a doctor grabbing him moments before passing out.
In an instant, the trajectory of Coots’ life changed forever. With a shot at a career in bodyboarding behind him, Coots set out to find a new option, vacillating between jobs in the tourism industry and tinkering around with a camera, shooting pictures of his friends. It was only after an encounter with John Russell, who came out to Kaua‘i to shoot Coots for an article in Breakaway magazine, did Coots begin to seriously consider a career in photography.
“Growing up in Hawai‘i really influenced me photography-wise, because you see so many beautiful things,” he says. “You watch the sun rise at one place or see all kinds of crazy things with the ocean—I just wanted to be able to tell those stories.”
Nearly two decades later, Coots has become the go-to guy on Kaua‘i for surf photography. It has taken him to places like Peru, France, Spain, and Portugal to shoot for some of the industry’s biggest brands and magazines. Despite his accomplishments, Coots remains humble, attributing his work ethic to Russell.
“He has a notepad and writes everyone’s names down, memorizes who they are, then writes thank you letters to everyone that he’s ever worked with,” Coots says about his mentor. “He’s just all about relationships and not burning bridges, and of course looking for nice light.”
And in true form of loving one’s enemies—another confounding characteristic—Coots also has been instrumental in creating shark conservation legislation, working with organizations like the Pew Environmental Group to combat the killing of an estimated 75 million sharks every year as a result of shark finning.
Growing up in Hawai‘i really influenced me photography-wise, because you see so many beautiful things.
He helped draft Hawai‘i’s shark conservation bill, the first of its kind in the nation, and helped establish global shark sanctuaries, where neighboring countries ban shark finning, creating large swaths of ocean in which sharks are protected.
As a result of increased legislation, shark populations are beginning to stabilize, according to Coots. This has enabled him to turn his focus to making prosthetics, which can run upwards of $15,000 per piece, more accessible to amputees, as well as improving their design for those with active lifestyles. He hopes the foundation he works with, Friends of Bethany, which supports shark attack survivors and amputees, can begin collaborating with 3D-printing technology to print out prosthetic parts from plastic and carbon fiber inks.
“You can now print out the whole prosthetic, from top to bottom, for pennies on the dollar,” he says. “This technology is all happening within just the last year, but I see it as the future for amputees.”
If life has taught Coots anything, it’s the ephemeral quality of moments.
“I remember being in France one evening shooting Dustin Barca and Makua Rothman,” he recalls. “It had been cloudy and rainy, then all of a sudden, the sun popped out. It was instantly gorgeous, and Dustin did a really nice backside air. It’s crazy how literally in seconds, things can change.”