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Mike Coots

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Shark Attack: 'Been There, Done That, And I Survived'

Posted: 09/14/2012 9:00 am

Growing up in Hawaii, I never imagined it would be possible to fear an inanimate object, or to fear losing or damaging that object. Fifteen years ago I lost my leg to a tiger shark. Surprisingly, that was the easy part. The dependence on a prosthetic leg, fashioned from molded plastic, metal bolts, and a rubber foot: That was a different animal. I am blessed to still walk, but that same prosthetic has filled me with more fear than a shark ever could.

Phantom pain is very real. It kept me awake many nights; I would be flinching from a burning ache I could never escape. I feared it would never stop. Thankfully, that fear was erased over time. I am no longer fearful that my leg will get stolen on the beach while I'm out swimming (it has happened). Nor am I fearful that it will get caught on a coral reef (this has also happened). Once, I lost my leg while out surfing. My friend and I dove for hours looking for it. Luckily, we found it a day later. But what was really scary -- what would send sweat down my neck and a churning in my guts-- was the thought that something so essential to my life could break down and virtually cripple me. Murphy's Law is cruelly true. If something can break, it will break, and at the worst possible time.

Several years ago I traveled to Mexico, the first time I had gone out of the country with my prosthetic. Of course the damn thing snapped in half the day I got there. Typically, when my prosthetic would break, I would find my way to the nearest hardware store and figure out a method of jerry-rigging it, but this time I was in a foreign country, and the damage was beyond the scope of my skill set. I had to put my trust in a kind man to fix it. The helpless fear that trickled through my body as I handed over a vital part of myself (a $25,000 part!) to a total stranger, essentially putting my fate in his hands, that's something I never thought I would have the guts to do. But I swallowed my fear and put my faith in humanity. I didn't have health insurance at the time (or until very recently, if we're being honest) so a lot was on the line. Miraculously, he fixed it!

I read a survey once that said one of the most common fears is being attacked by a shark. Well, been there, done that, and I survived. Even though everything afterward was worse than the actual attack, it was just another fear I had to face, and even embrace. You can face your fears and still be standing at the end. I have had to look fear square in the face, accept it, embrace it, and learn the lessons it had to teach me. I could say that I conquered all of my fears, that I drove them back into a space in my mind I never visit. But that would be padding the truth. A little fear will always remain, but I've come to a place where I don't let it control me. If I scrape against a reef, sure I might flinch. But I move on. A tiny bit of fear keeps me cognizant and careful. From my surfing to my shark advocacy to my bold photography, there isn't room in my life to be afraid all the time.

Watch Mike's story as it appeared on "Shark Fight," part of the Discovery Channel's 25th anniversary of Shark Week programming:

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  • In this handout picture released by Awashima Marine Park, a 1.6 meter long Frill shark swims in a tank after being found by a fisherman at a bay in Numazu, on January 21, 2007 in Numazu, Japan. The frill shark, also known as a Frilled shark usually lives in waters of a depth of 600 meters and so it is very rare that this shark is found alive at sea-level. Its body shape and the number of gill are similar to fossils of sharks which lived 350,000,000 years ago. (Photo by Awashima Marine Park/Getty Images)

  • A shark swims in a tank at the New York Aquarium on August 7, 2001 in Coney Island, New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

  • A June 11, 2009 file photo provided by Elasmodiver shows scientist Eric Hoffmayer of the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, Miss., taking fin measurements of a whale shark in the Gulf of Mexico, about 55 miles off the Louisiana coast. Hoffmayer says whale sharks, the world's biggest fish, are particularly vulnerable if they get into the oil slick. That's because, rather than moving up to the surface and down again, they eat by swimming along the surface, sucking in plankton, fish eggs and small fish. (AP Photo/Elasmodiver, Andy Murch, File)

  • Home And Away actor Jon Sivewright launches the new Adventure experience Grey Nurse Shark Feed Dive at Manly's Ocean World on December 18, 2006 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Patrick Riviere/Getty Images)

  • This Saturday, June 26, 2010 photo released by Bruce Sweet shows a juvenile great white shark swimming in the Atlantic Ocean about 20 miles off the coast of Gloucester, Mass., in the rich fishing ground known as Stellwagen Bank. The shark was pulled up by Gloucester-based Sweet Dream III, tagged, and returned to the sea. (AP Photo/www.SportFishingMA.com, Bruce Sweet)

  • A shark swims in a tank at the New York Aquarium August 7, 2001 in Coney Island, New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

  • A shark swim inside a fish tank as a diver, left, cleans the glass at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa, Wednesday, Aug 31, 2011. The Two Oceans Aquarium hosts group activities for school children and students which include the identification and observation of fish and other species. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

  • In this handout picture released by Awashima Marine Park, a 1.6 meter long Frill shark swims in a tank after being found by a fisherman at a bay in Numazu, on January 21, 2007 in Numazu, Japan. The frill shark, also known as a Frilled shark usually lives in waters of a depth of 600 meters and so it is very rare that this shark is found alive at sea-level. Its body shape and the number of gill are similar to fossils of sharks which lived 350,000,000 years ago. (Photo by Awashima Marine Park/Getty Images)

  • In this picture taken on September 3, 2011, an environmental activist releases a baby black-tip shark into the sea as part of an operation organised by the sharks protection group Dive Tribe off the coast of the southern Thai sea resort of Pattaya. On average an estimated 22,000 tonnes of sharks are caught annually off Thailand for their fins -- a delicacy in Chinese cuisine once enjoyed only by the rich, but now increasingly popular with the wealthier middle class. (CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Walter Szulc Jr., in kayak at left, looks back at the dorsal fin of an approaching shark at Nauset Beach in Orleans, Mass. in Cape Cod on Saturday, July 7, 2012. An unidentified man in the foreground looks towards them. No injuries were reported. The previous week, a 12- to 15-foot great white shark was seen off Chatham in the first confirmed shark sighting of the season according to a state researcher. Two more sightings were reported Tuesday, July 2, 2012. The same waters are filled with seals, which draw the sharks because they are a favorite food of the animal. (AP Photo/Shelly Negrotti)

  • This undated photo released by The Galapagos National Park of Ecuador shows a diver alongside a whale shark in the Galapagos Island, Ecuador. (AP Photo/The Galapagos National Park of Ecuador)

  • Blacktip reef shark

    A green sea turtle (R) (Chelonia mydas) swims next to a blacktip reef shark (L) (Carcharhinus melanopterus) in the aquarium of the Haus des Meeres ('House of the Sea'), in Vienna on June 27, 2012. (ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • A blacktip reef shark

    A blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) swims in the aquarium of the Haus des Meeres ('House of the Sea') in Vienna on June 27, 2012. (ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Bonnethead shark

    A Bonnethead shark swims at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, on April 26, 2012.The Aquarium features a collection of over 11,000 animals representing over 500 different species. It focuses on the Pacific Ocean in three major permanent galleries, sunny Southern California and Baja, the frigid waters of the Northern Pacific and the colorful reefs of the Tropical Pacific.The non-profit Aquarium sees 1.5 million visitors a year and has a total staff of over 900 people including more than 300 employees and about 650 volunteers. (JOE KLAMAR/AFP/GettyImages)

  • Blacktip reef shark

    A blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus swims in the aquarium of the Haus des Meeres in Vienna on June 27, 2012. (ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Baby Nurse Shark Birth Captured on Camera

    The newborn is being kept away from the rest of the sharks at Yantai Haichang Whale and Shark Aquarium.

  • Rare Shark Frenzy Caught On Camera

    A school of feasting sharks was captured on camera just a few hundred meters off shore in Perth, Australia.

  • A blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus mela

    A blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) swims in the aquarium of the Haus des Meeres ('House of the Sea') in Vienna on June 27, 2012. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/GettyImages)

For more on becoming fearless, click here.

 
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