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.
See Mike’s impressive portfolio, featured last week on The Inertia, above.
Can you recount the shark attack?
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 pitbull 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 under water. 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?
Yea, actually we had the tailgate down and we were moving so fast that nobody thought to jump back there with me. I was laying 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.