Here’s How I Survived a Shark Attack

Mike Coots was surfing with his buddies near his home in Kauai when he was attacked by a shark. He lived to tell about it—and here's what he learned.

Let’s face it: Shark attacks are riveting. Plenty of people plan their lives around Shark Week—and even screenings of Sharknado. Thankfully, your actual odds of ever being attacked by a shark are a mere one in 11.5 million. That’s roughly the same as your odds of winning an Oscar, and slightly lower than your odds of being elected president. Which makes shark attack survivor, Mike Coots both incredibly unlucky and lucky: When Mike was 18, he lost his leg to a shark bite.

“I was attacked by a tiger shark in late October 1997. It was near my home on the island of Kauai—a typical fall morning with friends. The waves were really good, so nothing was stopping us.” That is until a large shark came right up under Mike and sank his teeth into Mike’s lower leg. There’d been no splashing, no noise, no dorsal fin, and Mike felt no pain, only immense pressure on his lower body.

As he tried to pry himself free, the shark bit down harder, shaking its head back and forth and tossing Mike around like a rag doll. Mike followed his instinct: He punched the shark in the face, again and again (which happens to be what the experts recommend) until the shark released him. As Mike swam back into shore, he felt his lower right leg spasming; when he looked down, he realized it was gone. The shark had bit his lower leg off. Mike’s friends rushed to his aid, and one of them fashioned a tourniquet out of the leash from his board. The doctors later told Mike that’s probably what kept him alive during the drive to the hospital.

It was another day before the “fog” lifted, at which point Mike opened his eyes and realized he was in the hospital—a below-the-knee amputee. For the next few bedridden weeks, Mike spent time with his family, researched prosthetics, and considered the future.

As soon as Mike was given the OK by his doctors, he did what many of us might consider unthinkable: he started riding the waves again. In fact, his first time back was near the site of his attack. But Mike was unshaken. Instead, he was curious—why was he attacked? “Was it because of the tides? The phase of the moon?” Mike also recalled that the morning of the attack the water had a fishy smell. Was that what attracted the shark? Find out 13 more things about shark attacks you didn’t know.

His curiosity led him to research sharks, and while he never figured out why he became a target, Mike did learn something that would change his life: Humans are far more dangerous to sharks than the other way around, Mike tells Reader’s Digest. “I watched a documentary called Sharkwater, and I learned about the demand for shark fin soup and the fact that 70 million sharks a year are killed for their fins alone.”

His unique situation as a shark survivor empowered him to give sharks a voice, Mike says. He began working with the Hawaii state legislature to help pass a ban on shark-derived products. “I partnered with other like-minded shark attack survivors and marine biologists, and we headed to Washington to urge senators to create a nationwide bill protecting sharks. I was also fortunate to speak to United Nations about the importance of shark sanctuaries.”

After the attack, Mike also discovered how much he loved photography, and it has become his profession. He also likes using his photos to spread the message about what’s happening to sharks and why it matters. “Sharks have survived mass extinction when everything else on earth was wiped away. They’re here on earth for a very important reason, holding together the web of biodiversity, and without them, our seas cannot survive.”

Through social media (here’s his phenomenal Instagram account), Mike found a platform to tell his stories, including debunking the myth that all sharks are mindless killers. Now, check out these fascinating and super-reassuring facts about sharks we bet you never knew.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest and in a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction, and her first full-length manuscript, "The Trust Game," was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.