'Shark stepping on a Lego' photo goes viral; here's the real story

A toothy tweet takes a bite out of social media, but did you know the photo was taken by a shark-attack survivor?

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
CNET freelancer Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
2 min read

The shark knows our pain.

When Robert Petersen, a student in Reno, Nevada, spotted a photo of a shark emerging from the water, its mouth open as if wincing, he made a smart and funny connection with the very human agony of stepping on a Lego brick. Then he tweeted the photo Thursday with the words "Rare image of a shark stepping on a Lego."

By now, you may have seen his tweet shared all over Twitter, Facebook and the web, sometimes with Petersen's name attached, sometimes not. Petersen's original tweet has been retweeted more than 86,000 times and earned 151,000-plus likes. He posted a video of the constant notification noises that blew up his phone as more and more people liked and retweeted his post.

"The pain of stepping on (a Lego brick) is a near universal experience for a lot of us," Petersen said. "I think the (tweet's) popularity arises from the fact that people love sharks, and love Lego, so it's kind of a perfect combination."

Reaction was worldwide, and overwhelmingly positive.

"From New York to London to Russia and everywhere else it was great to see so many people saying it made their day," Petersen said. "These days it can be quite depressing to see all the negative news and political arguing that goes on, so it's refreshing to see such near universal joy come from such a simple little caption."

The original shark photo was taken in January by Mike Coots, himself a shark attack survivor and now an avid advocate for the creatures. Despite losing a leg to a tiger shark in 1997 when he was a teenager, Coots now uses his photography to encourage protection of sharks, speaking out against the shark-fin trade and sharing shark photos on his Instagram account.

"I took my girlfriend as a surprise Christmas present on a shark dive off of Stewart Island in New Zealand where the pic was taken," Coots said. "It was on a GoPro on a long wooden dowel on the 0.5 sec timer mode. The shark was doing what was called 'gaping' (a shark-communication behavior) and I happened to capture it."

During this summer's Discovery Channel Shark Week, Coots briefly took over the Instagram account for the Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent nonprofit group, sharing his photos and thoughts on shark conservation.

Petersen's addition of a little humor to the photo doesn't bother Coots in the slightest, the photographer said.

"I think by using humor to personify what could be looked at as a scary 'teethy' image, it helps calm the myth that sharks are these dangerous non-discriminate killers without feelings," Coots said. "Humor is used with personification to remove fear and is replaced with laughter. Got to love that."