When Mike Coots was 18, he was attacked by a tiger shark while bodyboarding with friends in Hawaii.
He lost his right leg, at the calf, in the attack and suffered such severe blood loss that doctors said he should have died.
But in the years following this ordeal, rather than taking revenge on the species or refusing to set foot in the water again, he took a completely different path.
Coots, now 44, became deeply fascinated by sharks and dedicated his life to photographing them – with fascinating results. His work greatly benefits sharks and humans, helping the world better understand these often misunderstood large predators.
Conservationist showcases his spectacular shark photographs in new book, Shark: Portraits (published by Rizzoli), in a bid to illustrate how sharks “can be beautiful and are essential as apex predators to the health of our oceans”, he told MailOnline Travel.
Mike Coots has compiled his magnificent shark photographs into a new book, Shark: Portraits. Above is one of the images from the photo book, showing a great white shark named Buckethead off the coast of Guadalupe Island in Mexico.
LEFT: In this powerful photo from Coots, a female tiger shark named Emily floats toward the camera at the Tiger Beach dive site in the Bahamas. RIGHT: Geoff Nuttall, named after the world-famous violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, is a male great white shark. In this spectacular photo of Coots, he can be seen in the waters near Guadalupe Island in Mexico.
Following a shark attack in 1997, Hawaiian photographer Mike Coots (above) dedicated his life to shark conservation.
Coots’ shark attack occurred in 1997 when he went out early one morning to “catch a few waves” in his native Kauai. He recalls: “I paddled out for a wave and a large tiger shark attacked me. I didn’t feel any pain, just a lot of pressure. Reflecting on why he was attacked, he says: “It was the time of year when more and more attacks were happening, and the water was murky. » He notes that the shark “probably mistook him for a turtle.”
Luckily, Coots managed to punch the shark in the nose and it let go. He went to the beach, where his friend applied a tourniquet to him which saved his life.
At the time, Coots thought he was “going to die, but it wasn’t scary,” he said, adding that he was in shock on the way to the hospital. “I woke up the day after the operation, happy to be alive,” he says.
He went on to study photography at university, cutting his teeth in the craft photographing models and professional surfers. It was after graduating that he began to develop a passion for shark conservation.
A whirlwind moment happened when he was invited on a shark diving trip and brought a camera with him. “After that, (sharks) became my favorite photography subject,” Coots says, adding that sharks “are beautiful, mysterious, technically challenging as a subject and really fun to photograph.”
Over the past two decades, he has built a network with other conservationists, with whom he visits shark-filled dive sites everywhere from Mexico to New Zealand.
A female great hammerhead shark named Pocahontas (also known as Patches) is pictured at the Tiger Beach dive site in the Bahamas in this striking photo.
LEFT: Coots photographing a tiger shark at Tiger Beach dive site in the Bahamas. RIGHT: A great white shark approaches the water surface off Motunui, also known as Edwards Island, New Zealand.
This stunning photo shows a great white shark near Motunui, also known as Edwards Island, New Zealand.
But it is not always easy to find these creatures. In fact, the biggest challenge Coots faces is finding sharks to photograph. He says: “They are not as common as you think, and sometimes you have to go to the ends of the earth to find certain species.”
Over the course of his career, Coots has documented everything from hammerhead sharks to tiger sharks. The largest creature he ever shot was a 3.6m mature female great white shark, he reveals.
He is inches away from sharks when photographing them, whether snorkeling, underwater or in a shark cage.
Naturally, safety precautions are taken when shooting underwater. Coots says, “The safest way to be underwater with sharks is to have clear visibility and plenty of eye contact with the sharks. They are ambush predators and if they know that you know they are there, it is much safer.
Coots explain that they are more likely to attack if you are in “murky water” or if you are “splashing and looking like a wounded animal.” He warns: “Don’t splash, don’t panic, and if underwater, always look at the shark and make yourself look big… don’t turn your back on a shark.”
Inexperienced photographers can also make mistakes when photographing sharks, he reveals. Coots says: “They’re too busy looking through the camera’s viewfinder and don’t realize what’s going on around them, especially if there are multiple sharks in the area. »
Johnny Rainbow, a male great white shark, is captured in this stunning close-up, taken by Guadalupe Island in Mexico. On its head, bite marks from another shark are visible
A frightening situation enveloped Coots himself while he was underwater with a great white shark. He reflected: “He almost bit me, but I think he was just territorial and he wasn’t hungry, otherwise, if he wanted to, he (would have bitten me). I had so much adrenaline and was even having trouble speaking a few hours later.
It’s important to know the warning signs when sharks are preparing to attack. Coots says: “They will drop their pectoral fins, arch their body and swim erratically. »
But despite what some might think, sharks don’t intend to prey on humans, Coots notes, explaining that the biggest misconception about these creatures is “that a shark wants to bite you as soon as you come in.” in water “. “That’s very far from the truth,” he admits.
Coots believes humans’ misguided fear of sharks is largely a response to their portrayal in Hollywood – with films such as the 1974 blockbuster Jaws – and in the media. Their physical characteristics also inspire terror, he notes: “They are also large, powerful and have sharp teeth… it’s almost like a dinosaur that hasn’t gone extinct.”
The biggest positive aspect of his work, he reveals, is being able to “share compelling and authentic images to those who love sharks and those who don’t know them, presenting a new side (of sharks)”. He hopes this new book will demonstrate how “sharks are poorly understood, are a beautiful subject and are necessary in our seas for a healthy planet.”