Just after high school, Mike Coots‘ life changed forever. The Hawaii native was surfing with friends when a tiger shark attacked him, causing him to lose his right leg. Many in his position would have never stepped foot again in the water. But in the ensuing years, Coots has become an advocate for sharks and uses his skills as a photographer to reveal different sides to their personalities.
After studying art in college, Coots naturally gravitated toward the ocean as his muse. As he learned more about sharks and how important they are to the health of the ocean, he turned his attention to ensuring that they were protected. “I felt compelled in my unique situation as a shark attack survivor to speak out for the sharks, and was active in getting shark laws passed here in Hawaii and Washington, D.C.,” he shares.
Now, he continues his advocacy by speaking up for sharks and using his artistry to give them a voice. In his latest set of images from Mexico, he asks us to look past our fears and see the beauty of these powerful animals.
“I hope the viewer can see a little bit of themselves in the shark art. I use portraiture photography techniques and imagine I am shooting a person,” Coots tells My Modern Met. “I try to find a smile, grin or a trait that evokes an emotional response. My hope is if we can see a little bit of ourselves in something, it makes us want to learn more and activate to protect that. Sharks need protection, as the health of our oceans and planet depends on it.”
Through his artistic portraits of sharks, Coots focuses on every detail of the apex predator's anatomy. We see fins slicing through the water, an open mouth revealing jagged teeth, and rounded snouts moving toward us. And while Coots is enthralled with their beauty, he's cognizant of the risks. Every time he's in the water with these animals, he's acutely aware of needing to stay vigilant.
“I always have my head on a swivel not just looking at the shark I see, but the one that can sneak up behind you,” he explains. “I would suggest only shark diving with experts who are used to diving with the same species you are shooting in the same locales. I also wear an all-black wetsuit, large fins to make me appear bigger, and am always double-checking my scuba or free dive gear.”
Coots' powerful shark photography is a reminder that these kings of the sea should be judged beyond stereotypes. And as a shark attack survivor, advocate, and photographer Coots is leading by example.