It's typical to respond in kind when wronged. Mike Coots is not typical. He has only one leg. A shark took the other. But he does not want to take revenge. Coots is the cover boy for Aussie-based fin company Fin For A Fin, and they have a message. Printed directly on each fin they sell is a phrase meant as a request from the fin's owner that if they're attacked and killed by a shark, authorities ought not take the shark's life in return: "If my life's taken, don't take theirs," the fins read. (ed note: it's unclear what, if any, actual impact that statement might have on wildlife managers in the event of an attack).
Provocative for sure.
Coots is a 38-year old smooth-as-silk barrel rider hailing from Kauai. It's impossible to imagine surfing under any circumstances with a prosthetic leg and foot but Mike does it with a beauty that makes a man with two working feet question his own ability. Coots seeks no retribution for his loss and while his position to let sharks who've attacked humans to roam free may seem straight from the fringe of radio call-in shows, his testimony begs a fair hearing.
"It was early in our winter season, and it happened in the morning around 7:30," he starts. "A large tiger shark caught me by surprise, and bit onto my legs. I punched it a few times in the nose, it let go of me and I paddled to shore. Right before reaching the sand, I looked at my leg and noticed it was completely bitten off clean at the shin. I am a below the knee amputee, and also received deep cuts on my left foot, and cut a nerve on my right index finger."
When I ask about the nerves, Mike reassures that he "was fortunate to have no psychological issues, flashbacks, or bad dreams."
And the perp?
"The shark swam off, prob as startled as me, and could hopefully still be alive today."
Mr. Coots shares a genuine passion for saving big fish. "I've been involved with shark conservation since 2010, when we had a state bill here in Hawaii protecting sharks. That's when I learned what was happening to sharks worldwide."
So, what has been happening worldwide?
We know the surge of publicized shark sightings and incidents, from California to Florida, from South Africa to West Oz. Surprisingly, data from The Taronga Australian Conservation Society reveal that 2017 was an average year for shark attacks: 88 reported unprovoked attacks and 18 recorded fatalities. (For some perspective, about 100 million sharks are killed each year). Maybe the media has widened its lens; we and Coots know how unnerving yet magnetic attacks can be on the screen.
Or is a recent perceived increase in attacks actually a result of growing shark populations? In Australia, most sharks can be legally caught by commercial and recreational fishers. However, some shark species are now considered threatened under Australia's Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).
Under the EPBC, it is "an offense to kill, injure, take, trade, keep, or move any member of a listed threatened species on Australian Government land or in Commonwealth waters without a permit."
This includes the White Shark, listed as vulnerable by the Australia's Department of Environment and Energy.
Vulnerable, huh? We're the ones trying to fend off sharks equipped only with the defenses of the Outerknown ECONYL™ twill pocket Revolution boardshort. But we get the point. Recent allowances for culling with drumlines seems like a knee-jerk reaction. While controversial, it is hoped that the introduction of drumlines and nets will result in a reduction in the number of attacks; it certainly results in a reduction in sharks.
But Coots disagrees so I press him about his thinking. What if he learned that a shark who attacked someone was let to live then attack again?
"That's a good question. I think the probability of culling the exact shark responsible for an attack is very slim to none. We take the risk of the unknown every time we paddle out, it's the shark's home first and foremost. I truly believe culling is not the answer,” he responds. It's hard to argue with a primary source.
Fin For A Fin shares Coots' sentiment. As the company's mission statement reveals:
"We are a group of creative thinkers who believe ideas have the power to create change and positively impact our planet. We are for the protection of surfers. Our planet. And sharks. We're against reckless and bloodthirsty revenge. We believe that surfers should have the right to decide whether a shark's life is taken, if the shark takes theirs…"
This stance might not sit well for some. An easy argument could be made for the value of human life over that of a fish. Could some sort of psychological dysphoria be set within the minds of those who wish to let an attacking shark free to let loose on another unsuspecting human? Maybe the message of "If my life's taken, let them live" unveils some sort of attempted penance. After all, we've made a fine mess of our ocean. In fact, the term "our ocean" isn't particularly accurate; our time in the water is just as renters, poor tenants, really.
Or maybe the shark doesn't really attack at all, it is suggested. A creature of instinct, a shark just does. We rationalize but sharks don't, which explains both our natural awe and terror of their moves and motives.