In 1997, Kauai photographer Mike Coots, then 18, was bodyboarding when he lost his right leg to a tiger shark. Rather than go the way of Captain Ahab, Coots instead became an advocate for what he believes is a beautiful, misunderstood animal—one that’s increasingly under threat. According to Humane Society International, humans kill 100 million sharks annually.
For the past eight years, Coots has been photographing sharks all over the world, and a collection of his images, Shark: Portraits, was just published in September. “A big goal was to identify as many sharks as possible—to put names to faces, so to speak,” Coots says. One of his favorite subjects is a thirteen-foot female great hammerhead with a couple of names: Pocahontas and Patches. She patrols the waters near Tiger Beach in the Bahamas, where she holds court among tiger sharks, bull sharks, lemon sharks and Caribbean reef sharks.
“She’s the alpha, but in no way is she aggressive,” Coots says. “It’s hard to state in words, but you can feel her presence and she makes it known.”
The hours Coots spent diving among sharks has given him a deeper understanding of their behavior.
After a shark took his right leg in 1997, Kaua‘i surfer and photographer Mike Coots (ABOVE, left, PHOTOGRAPHY BY CANDICE LECROIX) became an advocate for their protection. He’s since traveled the world, photographing sharks for his new book Shark: Portraits.(ABOVE) Coots’ images of Caribbean reef sharks off Tiger Beach, Bahamas.
“Early on I would see sharks swimming, and it appeared to be this random, chaotic swim that had no meaning,” he says. Now he recognizes that their movements—blocking defensively or swimming side-by-side, for example—are a form of posturing and communication. “Sharks have a social structure, and you can observe this beautiful dance they do. It’s a way they talk to each other and say, ‘I’m the boss here,’ or ‘I respect you.’”
Though Coots went to art school and studied portraiture to photograph people, he found profiling sharks to be more rewarding than shooting bikini models. “The shark is the greatest muse on Earth,” he says, grateful for the opportunity to reframe the narrative around them. “Hollywood’s done a good job of selling the idea that the only good shark is a dead shark and that sharks are here to attack people. That’s not what they do. We’re not a choice prey for them.”