20 years after losing leg to shark, Kauai man among animal's strongest advocates

Updated: Feb. 24, 2017 at 4:18 PM HST
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(Photo: Mike Coots)
(Photo: Mike Coots)
Coots, then 18-years-old, recovers in the hospital from a 1997 shark attack.
Coots, then 18-years-old, recovers in the hospital from a 1997 shark attack.

On Oct. 28, 1997, a shark nearly took the life of 18-year-old surfer Mike Coots in waters off west Kauai.

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - "Right as my fingertips breached the water, a tiger shark came up from underneath me, grabbed on to me," said Coots. "(Shook me) like a dog would do with some meat."

After the attack, he was pulled to shore and rushed to an area hospital. The next morning, Coots awoke as an amputee. Most of his right leg was gone.

Purpose, Coots soon discovered, was a much harder thing to be taken from him.

"I was on the plane this morning and I had a lady ask me, 'What happened to your leg?' And I said, 'It's a shark attack,'" said Coots. "She looked very somber and said sorry. I said no, it's the best thing that's ever happened to me."

Though he now does it using a prosthetic leg, Coots is still an avid surfer as well as a photographer. The 37-year-old identifies not only as a shark attack survivor, but also as a proud advocate for the animals.

The irony of a shark attack survivor becoming a shark advocate isn't lost on the Garden Island native. The professional photographer and social media influencer sees it as his mission to change the public's perception about sharks.

"The end goal is to give sharks a voice and let people know that sharks aren't to be feared," said Coots. "They're just really intelligent creatures and unfortunately have really sharp teeth."

Even though he's now lived longer without his leg than he did with it, Coots admits he's still adjusting.

"It can be a little frustrating sometimes, because I have able-bodied friends that are are getting the waves and I'm face planting, getting sucked over the falls and hitting the reef," said Coots. "People call it disabled, handicapped. I like the term adaptive. I think you just learn how to adapt to things and try things differently."

And if he could go back to the moment that day in 1997, before jumping into the water, would he do things differently?

"No, no, I would still jump in the ocean that morning," said Coots. "Absolutely."

If you want to learn more about protecting sharks, Coots will be speaking Saturday at Kakaako Agora at 6:15 p.m. on the importance of sharks in a balanced ecosystem.

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