HOMETOWN: KILAUEA, KAUAI, HAWAII
MISSION: SAVE THE SHARKS
THE SHARK CAME UP vertically and latched on to both my legs. I instinctively stuck my right hand into its mouth to try and get my legs out. With my other hand I punched it in its head and it let go. I looked at the finger I had stuck in its mouth and it was peeled open like a potato. I looked at the guy next to me and his eyes were out of his head like silver dollars. He was like, 'Shark! Go in!' And I was like, 'I know!'
FOR MOST FOLKS, having a leg bitten off by a tiger shark would be a debilitating setback. Photographer Coots is not most folks. On October 28, 1997, when Coots's right leg was bitten off below the knee while he was bodyboarding at Waiokapua Bay, Kauai, it jump-started his life. The bite caused a nearly perfect amputation, and a quick tourniquet applied by a friend slowed the bleeding enough for Coots to make it to the hospital. Five weeks later, as soon as his staples and stitches were out, Coots went bodyboarding—at the same beach where he'd been attacked. "The waves were really good that day," he says. It took about a year before he was comfortable on his prosthetic leg. In the meantime, he developed a passion for photography and, in 2002, enrolled in the Santa Barbara, California–based Brooks Institute, graduating four years later. His clients now include American Express, Surfer magazine, and Quiksilver. In early 2009, the public-policy group Pew persuaded Coots to use his story to bring attention to the need for greater protection for sharks. He was shocked to learn that in 2000 roughly 73 million sharks had been killed for use in shark-fin soup, so he signed up to be a spokesman for Pew. "Shark fishermen are doing this killing and finning for something that's not a staple," Coots says. "It's a delicacy for restaurants in China for the really rich. Maybe losing my leg will help save a species that's been surviving for millions of years in our oceans." His work has since helped create the law to stop shark-finning in Hawaii. Then there's his surfing habit: Coots took up the sport after the attack, while at school in Santa Barbara, where the waves were too slow for bodyboarding. He now surfs daily and tows in whenever the winter swell is big enough. Did we mention that he rips?