In 1997, Mike Coots lost his right leg to a tiger shark while surfing in Kauai. Waiting for a wave shortly after dawn, the 10-foot shark came from below, attacking Mike vertically. After getting rag-dolled, Mike's right foot and lower leg were gone. In shock, Mike paddled to the beach and collapsed on the sand.
The attack defined Mike's life. Just 18 years old, and suddenly landlocked, Mike became obsessed with photography. After attending the Brooks Institute, Mike became a successful commercial photographer, doing work for companies like American Express and Quiksilver.
In 2009, Mike found himself on the other side of the camera when he began working with the Pew Charitable Trust to bring greater awareness to the practice of shark finning. A devoted advocate for the protection of sharks, Mike and a few friends have now launched Fin For A Fin, a surfboard fin that is similar to an organ donor symbol on your driver’s license. In the event of a shark attack, the specially-marked fin denotes to rescuers that you do not want the shark to be killed in an act of retaliation, as a symbolic gesture to discourage the reaction of shark culling. We spoke with Coots about the story behind the campaign, the personal growth he's experienced since his encounter 20 years ago, and why our cohabitation with sharks is necessary for the health of our oceans.
After losing your right leg to a shark, what made you want to dedicate yourself to help save them?
I watched this film called Sharkwater, recommended by a fellow shark attack survivor. The film moved me immensely, and I felt called to learn more about sharks and the fishing practice of shark finning. The more I learned, the more I wanted to help. I think this is a very exiting time for our oceans, as more stories and information of our seas are shared. Conversations about shark science is happening more and more frequently, and that's one great thing about Fin For A Fin.
How did the idea for Fin for a Fin come about?
It's based on the concept of showing personal responsibility. Look at how divided people currently are. The debate between the right and the left. You're wrong. I'm right. Nobody wants to even listen to someone else's viewpoint. I see these fins as a good conversation starter at the beach. I love the ocean. I love to surf. I love sharks. God forbid you lose your life. But everyone needs to realize how important sharks are to the ocean's ecosystem. Shark culling is not the solution. Fin For A Fin is incredibly personal, a symbol and a legacy of your wishes. It can’t be convoluted or given a spin. Regardless of where I live, this lets the authorities know my wishes.
How long have you been working on this project?
I began this passion project with some forward-thinking blokes from Australia about 8 months ago. The campaign was launched last month in Australia. But the fins are available worldwide.
What will be done with the funds collected?
Profits will fund initiatives and research focused on both the protection of sharks and surfers, specifically Dorsal, a shark alert network, and Tag for Life, a charity focused on educating people about shark behavior. I really feel that due to emerging technologies – be it drones, or underwater sonar technology, or simply our efforts in working together – that we could easily and effectively stop the destructive practice of shark culling.
Why is shark culling such a destructive practice?
Well to start, shark culling programs have been implemented and haven’t worked. In fact my home state of Hawaii culled between 59′ to 76′, and there was not a decrease in attacks. Sharks are in our oceans for a critical reason: to remove the dead, dying, sick, and weak. Sharks are the glue that holds the web of biodiversity together. To have a healthy earth, we must have oceans filled with undersea life. Remove sharks from our seas, and our seas as we know it will cease to be. Co-existence is for humans and sharks to exist side by side. Culling is not that.
Social media has helped you spread Fin For A Fin’s message, but it also has helped you in other ways as well, correct?
After the attack, I was ashamed about my prosthetic leg. In college, I wore jeans every day for all four years. It wasn’t until I started posting photos of myself surfing with my prosthetic leg that my self-confidence began to change. I got very nice words from friends, and it got me more comfortable in my own skin — or in my case, carbon and titanium.
What’s next on your itinerary?
Next week I am headed to Tiger Beach in Grand Bahama to dive with tiger sharks. It's not even a beach, just an offshore sandbar with a healthy population of sharks. I was there about 8 months ago. It was the first time I'd knowingly been in the water with tiger sharks since I was attacked.
Check out Fin For A Fin on Indiegogo here.