EXPERIENCING THE KIND OF LOSS that Mike Coots has might keep anyone else sidelined for life, riding the proverbial pine. Rather than wallow in self-pity, Mike turned every surfer’s nightmare into a life-changing personal gain. In fact, since having his right leg taken off by a tiger shark at his home break on Kauai, he flipped the situation 180 degrees. Instead of fearing, resenting, and avoiding sharks, Coots lobbies for their conservation, dives with them, and continues to surf the same spot he was attacked at the tender age of 18. Additionally, he helps lifelong friend and ‘sister’ Bethany Hamilton with her foundation and provides counsel to amputees and victims of shark attacks. He also picked up surfing after his leg was removed and now tows into huge waves while wearing a prosthetic.
To say that Mike made the best of a bad situation is an understatement at the very least. He considers the accident a blessing and is ready to do whatever he can to protect the animals that nearly took his life. I spoke with him earlier this year.
RL: Can you recount the shark attack?
MC: I was on this bodyboarding team and right after high school we were all together. I was 18 at the time and it was early October. We went surfing on the west side of Kauai. There’s a military base out there and a pretty good surf spot we all went to.
I remember we all got to the beach. It was early in the morning and we all paddled out. I was on my bodyboard and it was about four feet or so. A nice set came through and all my friends caught waves. I think it was a five-wave set. Soon enough, it was myself and another guy out there. When the last wave came in, I remember looking at him and we looked at each other wondering who’s going to catch the wave, and I got on my board and started paddling, and as soon as I made a motion the shark came up and grabbed onto me. I didn’t see it coming from far away or anything, and it wasn’t a scary fin coming towards me. It was a blind-sided attack. Kinda like a submarine but vertical. It latched onto my leg and it started shaking me back and forth — I guess kinda like a pit bull would do with a doll.
During the back-and-forth motion, I remember feeling a lot of pressure on my legs, like a big guy was sitting on me. I didn’t feel any pain or anything. After it swung me back and forth a couple times, I, with my left hand, punched it in its nose pretty hard. It let go of me instantly and went back underwater. I got back on my board and I looked at my index finger and it was all bloody and I could see the bone and stuff sticking out. It looked like a split-open potato. I was kinda freaked out. I was like, “Oh boy, I’m hurt.” After I looked at my finger, I looked up at the guy that I’d been jockeying with the wave for, and his face had gone completely white. I yelled, “Shark! Go in!” and he started paddling in and I paddled in behind him.
As I was paddling, my right leg started doing this shaking, like a total spasm. I distinctly remember thinking, “This is it. The shark’s getting me again and I’m toast.” I looked over my shoulder, and I didn’t see the shark, but I saw my leg just severed off completely. I had no idea I was even hurt, but my leg was just gone. You couldn’t have done a better amputation with a scalpel. It was just perfectly cut off. I remember seeing blood shoot out the middle every time my heart beat.
At that point, another wave came and I caught it and rode it right up to the sand and I tried standing up on the beach. Y’know, you’re used to standing on two feet your whole life and I remember falling over in the sand with blood everywhere. My friend Kyle saw this and ran up to me, dragged me up a little higher, took my leash off my boogie board and made a tourniquet instantly and he just started saying a prayer. I closed my eyes and I just remember praying with him and as soon as he finished the prayer, I opened my eyes and there was this pick-up truck right there. This guy Keith had seen it from far away. He had seen me in the sand and he threw me in the bed of the pick-up truck and we took off to the ER.
I remember going in and out of shock, real hot and cold, going in and out of consciousness. As soon as we got to the ER, these surgeons started running up to the truck and my body gave out. I woke up the next day and I was at our main hospital, post-surgery and everything. My family and friends were all there.
After that, I spent about a month out of the water because of the stitches and staples. I guess there’s a high risk of infections, so I had to wait until all that healed up and then I was back in the water just over a month later.
What went through your head as the shark was shaking you back and forth?
It wasn’t an out-of-body experience or anything. I was looking right at the shark. Your whole life in the ocean, you’re basically preparing yourself for that moment. I knew it was a shark attacking me. The punching (the shark in the nose) was totally instinct, that fight-or-flight instinct.
In Hawaii, we have centipedes. When you see one, you kind of get chicken skin. I remember having that exact feeling. The get-away-from-me feeling where you feel that creepy sensation. I knew I just had to get away from the situation. Whatever I had to do — punch, kick, whatever. And it worked. As soon as I hit the shark, it released its grip on me and left me alone.
Do you remember being taken to the hospital?
Yeah, actually we had the tailgate down and we were moving so fast that nobody thought to jump back there with me. I was lying by myself and the guy had his quiver of surfboards back there next to me, and I remember them being held in cloth board bag material. I was playing with the cloth to keep my mind off the injury, not trying to look down at my leg.
I was also looking out the back of the tailgate and we were moving really fast, passing cars and everything. At one point, we pass a girl and her mom and the tailgate is down and I’m missing my limb, blood everywhere, the whole tailgate covered in it. I remember looking at the mom and looking at the daughter and they pulled over, off the road, looking very disturbed. I remember thinking, “This isn’t good.” Y’know how you can kinda judge your injury on the expression of others? It was one of those things where I knew it wasn’t too good by looking at people’s reactions to seeing me.
In the five weeks of recovery, what happened? Was that when you got into photography?
Totally. I was on the surf team and we did little video projects here and there, and my coach had some still cameras. What happened was I started using his cameras and I’d start by shooting my friends Kamalei Alexander and Evan Valiere and those guys.
What really got me stoked on it was this guy John Russell who came to shoot me for a magazine right after the attack. He came back to Kauai a few months later to do a Sports Illustrated shoot, and he knew nobody on the island except for myself. He wanted to know if I wanted to assist him for the shoot, and I was like, “Sure, why not?” Being on the shoot with him and watching him work made me believe it was a really great profession. I thought I’d like to do this as a living. It happened to be the same time that I was trying to figure out what I was going to do now that my bodyboarding career was over with.
I loved the shoot with John and I talked to my mom who looked on the internet to see if there were any colleges that specialized in photography. We came across Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara and I applied and got accepted. Overnight, it seemed, I was in college learning photography.
Halfway through the program, we had a marketing class and the teacher’s like, “Here’s promo pieces from photographers around the country,” and she hands me a promo piece from this photographer and it was John Russell’s. At that moment, everything came full circle. As soon as class got out, I called him and I told him I was in college because of him and he said, “Actually, I’m in Santa Barbara right now. Let’s grab some lunch.” From there, he started getting me assisting with bigger jobs for bigger clients. Everything really snowballed from there. It’s been an amazing experience.
Tell me about your involvement with shark conservation.
A few years back, I got a call from the PEW Environment Group. They asked if I knew about shark finning. I had no idea what that was or any of the facts and issues surrounding it. I learned through watching the movie Shark Water that there are roughly 70 million sharks per year killed for their fins and they called me back about it. They started sending me more information and put me in touch with scientists who explained the science behind it.
The more I learned, it was a no-brainer that I’m in a valuable position as a shark-attack victim to speak out for the sharks. I believe they’re in the ocean for a reason — they’ve survived ice ages, extinction, all that. They’re the glue that holds the marine diversity together, some scientists will say, though they’re being killed at an alarming rate and many are on the verge of extinction.
The Great White Shark is an endangered species and Colin Barnett is breaking 21 different laws — international policies and laws in Australia. I don’t think putting a bullet in their head is teaching the right lesson to the world. Instead of that, maybe tag it and learn more about it? Learn how to coexist with it. I just think it’s a total knee-jerk reaction and it’s the wrong way to go.
How did you go about getting back in the water post shark attack? Was there a mental hurdle to overcome or was the transition seamless?
It wasn’t difficult. I’d say it really has to do with growing up in the water in Hawaii. If I was born landlocked and I put my toe in the water and a shark jumped out and attacked me, and that was my only interaction ever with the ocean, it’d be a totally different thing. But because I spent so much time diving as a kid and snorkeling and surfing and boogie boarding, it just goes with the territory. If the water’s salty, that’s the shark’s home. The hardest part of the whole ordeal was being out of the water. It wasn’t sharks or anything like that. It was not being able to surf in the winter season.
Was there any post-traumatic stress?
No. I’ve been fortunate. I never had one nightmare. No twitching, nothing like that. No keyword that someone says and I start having flashbacks. It’s basically had zero psychological effect on me at all. There have, however, been a couple times surfing, post-attack, when I’ve had a couple scares around big boils of water. Not flashbacks but it does get the blood going.
Recently, I’ve gone diving with sharks and it’s pretty cool underwater interacting with them. It’s a much different thing. Also, the chance of someone getting bitten twice by a shark — I mean, those odds are absolutely astronomical. If I was, maybe I’d be able to write a really good book or something. I’m not too worried about it.
No ghost or phantom pains?
There were some phantom pains, but that’s all physical. No psychological stuff. It went away after a little while.
Is that alleviated after you get the prosthetic and become accustomed to using it?
No, it’s alleviated over time. Y’know, maybe it is a mental thing. Some scientists or doctors have figured out a way for war victims, after they get their leg blown off and they’re laying in the hospital bed, they put a mirror where their leg should be, which tricks the body into thinking the leg is still there by seeing the reflection. It’s helped a lot with that phantom pain. It happens to everyone who loses a limb, the phantom pain.
You and Bethany Hamilton are both shark-attack survivors from Kauai who lost limbs. Any special bonds between you guys? How does that manifest itself?
Absolutely. Without a doubt. There’s a definite connection. She’s like my sister. We have this kind of unspoken bond that we’re in this club together that nobody else is a part of. It’s obvious whenever we’re surfing or hanging. And other people pick up on it. It’s like, “Whoa there’s two shark-attack victims side by side. One’s missing an arm, the other’s missing a leg.” However, I’ve known her long before the attack too, and we’re close family friends. When she came to in the hospital right out of surgery, she opened her eyes and I was right there. The first person to see her as she came out of surgery. So we have that special moment too.
How was the return to being active in the water with a prosthetic?
I was a bodyboarder until after the attack. It wasn’t until I went to Santa Barbara for college, where the waves aren’t good for bodyboarding at all, that I picked up surfing.
One day, I took a long surfboard out at Leadbetter Beach and I remember walking to the water’s edge. I started to walk into the water to test if this thing [prosthetic] was going to fall apart. I got up to my knees in the water and it was holding on. A little further in the water and I was able to get onto the board and paddle. It felt like uncharted waters because they tell you not to take it in the water, that it’s going to break and insurance won’t cover it if anything happens. You’re really told not to do what I do with it. So I got out there and I tried to stand up and it was one of those ‘let’s take it one step at a time’ things. Literally. And the thing wasn’t falling apart. It wasn’t disintegrating before my eyes and I came in and I washed it out and it was fine.
The next prosthetic I got made for me, I had them build in a ridge on the socket so that the leash wouldn’t slide down all the way to the ankle and want to pull. I realized that if I could have the leash stay higher up, almost like how longboarders do it, there’s less pulling. From there, I figured out how to make a surf strap to really hold on in bigger surf and what ankles work the best. I always thought it would be better to have a real flexible ankle because I’d be able to get really low and barrel ride. If it wasn’t flexible, I’d bend down and be tip-toeing, if that makes sense. Unfortunately, with the really flexible ankle, I had no drive on the bottom turn, so I learned the fine line between flex and not. A piece of rubber and metal, unfortunately, doesn’t know when to flex and not flex, so I learned what the best stiffness is. I also learned all about the angle both in and out that the foot plays in my positioning on the board. My prosthetic foot sits out to the right a little more so I’m able to compensate.
Tow surfing really seems to help figure this out because you can really feel the mechanics of the board, whereas sometimes if you’re surfing a beach break, everything’s happening so fast that you don’t really have time to analyze things. If you’re behind a ski, you can get a feel for the sweet spot.
So the prosthetic is easier to manage when you’re tow surfing?
Yeah, but in ways it’s all kind of the same. It’s just trying to be on the sweet spot where you get the most response. With my prosthetic, I can step on a penny in the road and feel that penny under my foot. So I can actually feel the deck pad with my fake leg and know where I am on the pad without looking at it so I can shift around that way. Your brain, after a while, starts to be able to figure it out.
You seem to have conquered the concept of fear. How did you manage that?
It all comes back to growing up on this rugged island. Y’know, growing up here with Andy [Irons] and those guys, you see the craziest things go down. You learn that life isn’t meant to be played safe. That’s our upbringing. The more radical and the more you feel alive, the better life is. You can sit at home on the couch all you want, but are you really living life?
What’s next for Mike Coots in photography, surfing, and conservation?
Bethany and I have a foundation (Friends of Bethany) where we help a lot of disabled kids and amputees. I’d really like to start working with 3D printers. I know they’re starting to print carbon fiber and make prosthetic parts for people who need them. For example, a bolt that breaks in your prosthetic would cost hundreds of dollars but literally pennies to make. The American medical system is so corrupt and broken that a lot of people can’t afford things that they should be able to have. If you’re able to print that part out for very cheap, it’d be awesome to have these printers around the country and help out people in need. That’s a big goal of mine.
Shark conservation stuff too with all the attacks we’ve had in Maui. I really hope there aren’t any more fatalities because I have a feeling our Hawaii state government might start doing a similar type of culling program because we’re so heavy on tourism. If that were to happen, I’d obviously want to be the first one to stop all that stuff.
The photography thing is wonderful to be able to document and shoot, but it’s not an end-all. It pays the bills and it’s really enjoyable, but I really find my passion in helping kids like this morning with Bethany. That’s really what I hope the future brings.