It was the morning of October 28, 1997.
Mike Coots was an 18-year-old bodyboarder at Majors Bay on the west side of Kauai.
“I remember looking out at these beautiful, amazing swells,” he said. “But there was a bit of a foul smell in the air, sort of like a dead fish. But because the waves were so good we were like ‘forget this dead fish smell, we’re going to go surf.’”
He and his friends paddled out.
Coots and another guy were eyeing the same incoming wave.
“I made a (paddle) motion to signal my dominance that I wanted this wave, and as soon as I made the motion to catch the wave, a large tiger shark came up from underneath me and grabbed onto me and started shaking me back and forth.”
Blindsided by the attack, Coots stuck his hand in the shark’s mouth to pull his legs out but the shark kept trying to get a better grip on him, the 36-year-old photographer recalls.
“Fight or flight, I just punched it, and on the second punch, it went back under water.”
He remembers his right index finger being “split open like a potato” from the shark’s teeth.
He felt a spazzing sensation on his right leg and looked back to see it completely severed off below the knee. “
A surgeon could not have done a better job,” said Coots.
A wave pushed him onto the shore, where his friends made a tourniquet and rushed him to Wilcox Memorial Hospital in Lihue.
Coots spent a week in the hospital and was fitted for a prosthetic leg about a month later. But the experience hasn’t dulled Coots’ love for the ocean.
As soon as the doctor gave him the green light, he was back in the water the next day. “That feeling of jumping in the salt water and feeling it go over your body, it was incredible,” he said. “That was probably one of the most beautiful moments of my life, to get back in the water.
“I’ve never been out of the water for that long, so it was pretty difficult for me.”
Coots harbors no anger toward the shark that took his leg. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.
“I love sharks, I’m very comfortable with sharks.” he said.
In 2010, Coots worked with the Pew Charitable Trusts’ environmental group, raising awareness about shark finning and marine conservation.
“Their fins are cut off for shark fin soup and it’s having really bad effects on our marine ecosystem,” he said. “Sharks are apex predators so they’re at the very top of the ecosystem. They kill off the lesser of the gene pool so they’re actually making the gene pool stronger. Without sharks in the ocean, the ocean will soon collapse.”
Coots has tackled life with a prosthetic head-on.
“It actually becomes a fun game in a way where you don’t think you can do something and then you figure out how to do it with a prosthetic and it’s a really cool thing,” he said.
Coots said he’s gone from learning how to walk again, to sprinting on the sand, to driving a truck, to riding a dirt bike, to learning how to surf — all with his prosthetic leg.
“It builds this inner confidence,” he said. “You build on these little things and then it’s like ‘what can I not do?’”