Reversal of Fortune
story by Jeff Mull
photos by Dana Edmunds
Seated in the bed of his pickup truck, Mike Coots trains his eyes on the horizon, his right hand firmly pressed up against his brow. The smoke-infused smell of red meat cooking over an open flame cuts through the warm summer air. The parking lot at Kauai’s Hanalei Bay is abuzz with local surfers anticipating the arrival of an unusually early August north swell.
It seems that everyone on Kauai knows who Mike is. Tall, forever smiling, humble and with a camera seemingly welded to his hand, he’s hard to miss. I’d heard Mike’s name, too, but we didn’t meet until a few years ago, when we both started working in the surf media, he as a promising photographer and me as a writer, I hope also promising. We’ve covered a few stories for Surfer Magazine together over the years and in the process have become friends. But it isn’t because Mike’s a great surfer or an accomplished photographer—or that he used to date a Victoria’s Secret model—that his is a household name on the Garden Isle.
For most of the day the swell that has been the talk of the town has been just that—talk. But 500 yards out to sea, the 30-year-old sees something he likes: A head-high wave swells on the horizon, feathers as it approaches shallow water and breaks across the razor-sharp reef. It’s the first sizable wave to hit here in months. Behind it, half a dozen perfect lines of Pacific energy follow; a smile breaks across Mike’s face. He leaps out of the truck, grabs his shortboard, secures a $12,000 metal prosthetic to the place where his right foot used to be and begins the long paddle out to the peak. “Let’s get on it,” he says through his grin. And we do.
Twelve years ago it was raining hard in the mountains of Kauai. Streams bloated and swelled. Dams and barriers were breached, and those usually timid streams roared down the mountainsides, carrying with them freshwater fish as they emptied into the sea, creating a feeding frenzy for sharks in the area.
Had it not been dawn, had the morning light illuminated the lineup just a little better, Mike, then 18, might have stayed out of the ocean. But almost immediately after he entered the water, a tiger shark estimated to be more than ten feet long took his right foot. With an array of adrenaline-fueled haymakers, Mike fought off one of nature’s most perfect killing machines, made it to the beach and collapsed. Friends loaded him into the back of a pickup and got him to the hospital, where doctors stopped the bleeding and saved his life.
“When I was attacked it was about 7:30 in the morning or so,” Mike recalls. “I was waiting for a wave, and a tiger shark came up vertically and did the whole rag doll thing. It was really quick. I felt a bit of pressure, and then my leg came off. It’s not like the movies or anything. It wasn’t really a gruesome, crazy thing; your body goes into shock, and you don’t really feel any pain.”
Unlike many survivors of traumatic experiences, Mike didn’t dwell on the past. With all of the fame—interviews, daytime talk show appearances—that inevitably follow surviving a shark attack, he found his way to the other end of the camera. While he was sidelined from surfing during his rehabilitation, his once-vague interest in photography grew into a full-blown obsession, and he moved to California to attend Brooks Institute, a prominent West Coast school for photography. In the twelve years since the attack, Mike has carved a reputation for himself as an adept lens man, shooting everything from American Express ads on the mainland to far-flung surf trips in Latin America; his images have been featured in every major surfing publication.
Not one to give up in the face of adversity, Mike returned to the ocean once his leg healed. When he moved back to Kauai, he learned to surf on a prosthetic leg. Although it took him more than a few sessions and a fair bit of pain, Mike managed to find his feet once again and has never looked back.
When Mike talks about the attack, you won’t hear grief or resentment in his voice. Instead, there’s almost gratitude for the life that has opened up to him as a result. But it’s his latest endeavor that really illustrates the depth of that gratitude. Last spring, Mike was in Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress against the practice of shark-finning, an effort that has again earned him national media attention. Since the attack, Mike has often said that he holds no grudge. “A lot of people ask me if I ever had any resentment towards sharks. And no, I’ve never once felt like that. I love the ocean, and they’re a big part of that world,” says Mike. So when he received a call from the Pew Charitable Trust detailing the practice of shark-finning, he felt moved to do whatever he could to defend them. The organization asked Mike and eight other shark attack survivors to meet with Congress and encourage them to close loopholes in an existing law that bans the practice in the United States. The amended Shark Conservation Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Madeleine Bordallo of Gaum and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, passed the House of Representatives last March, but it has yet to pass the Senate. Enter Coots and the other survivors.
“To be honest, I didn’t really know all that much about shark-finning. After the people at Pew laid out the numbers for me and I did a bit of research on my own, I just had to help. When I learned how many sharks are killed every year just for their fins, I did a double take; I thought there might have been an extra zero or two at the end of the number. They’re our oceans’ apex predator, and if we force them into extinction, it’s going to have a big impact on our lives.”
The numbers are indeed staggering. The nonprofit group WildAid estimates that between seventy million and one hundred million sharks are killed for their fins annually; a report released earlier this year from the International Union for Conservation of Nature states that roughly a third of all shark species worldwide are in danger of extinction. The majority of the sharks are killed for their fins, used for shark-fin soup in many parts of Asia. With the growing middle class in China over the past decade, the demand for the delicacy has skyrocketed.
The process of shark-finning is brutal; the sharks are hoisted on deck, their fins cut from their bodies, and then thrown back overboard, alive, to slowly perish in the sea. Traditionally, shark meat, excluding the fin, is of such low value that it doesn’t warrant taking up space on deck. If passed, the Shark Conservation Act will require that all sharks caught in US waters come ashore with their fins attached to their bodies.
“If the Senate passes this into law, I know it’s not going to stop shark-finning altogether,” says Mike, “but the idea is that the US can set the standard for the rest of the world to follow.” While in D.C., Mike met with Hawai‘i Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka; both were receptive, he says. “[They] were really interested in what I had to say and hearing my story. I laid out the scientific evidence for them, expressed how important sharks are to the ocean, and I think that’s really all I can do. … I think that everyone I met in D.C., all of the other shark attack survivors, feel the same way as I do. I guess I can’t really speak for anyone else, but I feel that if my experiences can help stop shark-finning, then I can do some good.”
Back in the water on Kauai, Mike and I make our way into the lineup for our afternoon surf. Of all the settings for all the interviews he’s given, he says, this one might just take the cake. “Maybe you could tell them about the time I lost my prosthetic surfing on Christmas Day. Worst Christmas ever. But the next day, one of the instructors for the local surf school stepped on it in the water. I wish I’d saved that message on my voice mail: ‘Uh, hey, Mike, this is Titus. I think I found your leg in the lineup. I have it in the back of my truck if you want to come and get it.’ So classic.” Our laughter gets interrupted by a bump on the horizon that builds into a wave on the outside reef. Mike sprint-paddles for it, his arms churning through the water.
As the wave goes vertical, Mike charges like a man possessed. Perfectly poised, he lifts himself to his feet as the bottom of the wave drops out; his back leg—the metal prosthetic fused with a plastic foot—remains firmly planted on the tail of the board. It is at once absurd and heartwarming to see a man with one leg fly past you on a wave. As he streaks past the dozens of other surfers on the lineup’s edge, it’s hard to miss the look of shock and amazement on their faces. Grinning at the first wave of the season, Mike effortlessly kicks out and paddles back to the lineup.