The RL Q&A: Mike Coots

Surfer, photographer, shark attack survivor—and, now, a shark advocate. Mike Coots lives to document life on the ocean, both above and below the surface

After losing a leg to a tiger shark at the age of 18, Kauai native Mike Coots has made a name for himself as a voice (and an eye) for ocean life conservation. “The ocean has given me everything,” he says. “So giving back couldn’t be any more important to me.” Despite the attack more than two decades ago that left him with a prosthetic leg, Coots’ advocacy for the ocean and its shark populations has never wavered. “Our oceans are facing trying times,” he says. “If I can take something that could be perceived as a negative in my life, and turn it into a positive to make an impact in the health of our oceans, then why not?”

Taking a break from his schedule of surfing, underwater photo shoots, and conservation lectures, Coots appeared in Polo’s Summer ’20 campaign (alongside his friend and fellow surfer, Kiron Jabour), and spoke to us about how he turned his transformative experience into a new life of protecting and documenting the oceans.

Tell me a bit about the shoot. What was the experience like?

To be honest, I’m a lot more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. But it was great! We had the most perfect light all day, we were in a beautiful setting, and by the end of the day, I felt like I had a bunch of new friends.

When and how did you get into surfing? What do you love about it?

I was born and raised on the little island of Kauai. I was about 3 years old the first time that I got in the water on a boogie board. I distinctly remember the feeling of the ocean bringing me to the shore, and how incredible that felt—like a blanket of sea surrounding you. You go from operating under your own energy and control to something more powerful taking over. It’s almost unexplainable, how forceful the ocean feels. It wraps around your life from that moment on. I remember in elementary school, I would stare at the hedges outside of the window of my classroom and imagine that they were waves—I couldn’t wait to get out of school and jump in the water. I’ve been hooked ever since.

You grew up surfing on Kauai, home to so many legendary surfers. When did you first realize that you were pretty good yourself?

I realized I had a talent for wave riding late in elementary school, when we had little competitions and I would place among the better surfers in the town. We have the best and baddest surfers on the planet on Kauai. You’re shoulder-to-shoulder with them every time you paddle out. I grew up with Andy Irons, three-time World Champion, and when he’s out, the level of commitment that everyone has to catching bigger and better waves quadruples. I think that resonated with every surfer on the island.

You mentioned earlier that you feel as if the ocean gives you perspective. Tell me a bit more about that?

The ocean can teach you all of life’s most valuable lessons. It teaches you patience. It teaches you respect. It teaches you that sometimes you just have to wait and trust that something better will come along. It takes a long time to get good at surfing, and it takes a long time to get good waves. The ocean doesn’t hand you anything. It takes a lot of time on stormy days in rough weather, so to speak. But if you really pay attention, day in and day out, the ocean sets you up for everything on land.

When you were 18, you lost your leg in a shark attack. A few weeks later, you were back in the water. What propelled you to get back to surfing? Were you scared?

After sitting in the hospital and my bedroom, lying there as my friends came by talking about the great waves they caught that day, I knew I had to get back. I was not scared, no—the desire to go back into the water and resume some kind of normalcy was greater than any other. Plus, statistically, I knew that it was improbable to ever happen again. And if it did happen again, well, I could probably write a pretty good book about it.

My first day back, I remember it was a hot, sunny morning. I was on crutches, and the crutch would dig into the soft sand. But as soon as I put away the crutches, got on my knees, and crawled into the ocean, it felt like I was coming home.

Did people think you were crazy?

No, but I think that’s a testament to the island mentality that the ocean is a source of life, everywhere around us. I’ve had friends and family members who have been attacked by sharks themselves. Out here, it happens, and life moves on. I had a lot of support from my friends, my parents, from everyone as I was coming back—plus, all of my friends wanted me to get back to riding waves with them.

Now, you’ve made a career photographing sharks. What made you want to pursue this specific angle after your experience?

The reason I take pictures is not so much to create something that people simply enjoy looking at but to create a conversation. I want to tell a story and get people off the couch.

I think Hollywood has done a great job of showing one side of sharks—the teeth, the blood—but I want to balance out the other side and show why they’re so needed in our marine ecosystems. And I try to tell that story with photography. I studied portraiture photography, so I shoot sharks like I shoot people. I use longer focal lengths, and when I select and edit, I try to find some kind of human emotion from the sharks, something that looks like a smirk or a smile.

I think that really resonates with people and serves to balance the fears and the myths. If we can see a little bit of ourselves in a shark, it pushes us to dig deeper and learn about why sharks are important in our seas.

It sounds like you’ve really learned to live a life of intentionality and gratitude.

It all comes back to learning lessons from the ocean. You have to trust that everything is going to work out. I take every day as a gift. And maybe it is because of what happened that day of the attack, but either way, I really believe that every day is precious. I don’t take it for granted. It sounds cliché, but it isn’t. Life is full of incredible gifts, and I make an effort to slow down every day and appreciate them. We have a saying here: “simple island boy.” Turns out, that’s a pretty good way to live.

Andrew Craig is the men’s concept editor for Ralph Lauren.
  • © Ralph Lauren Corporation
  • Courtesy of Mike Coots