As he was pulled below the waves, Joseph Tanner fought to remember the advice he’d heard about surviving a shark attack: Punch the eyes or the nose.
But as the shark’s teeth pierced his leg, Tanner couldn’t see those weak spots.
So he lashed out at the most vulnerable thing he could reach.
“I opened my eyes and there were gills in front of me,” the 29-year-old told reporters in Oregon, according to the Associated Press. “I can’t reach the nose and I can’t reach the eyeballs, so I just started hitting the gills.”
It was Oct. 10, in the chilly waters off the northern Oregon coast. Tanner was out surfing with his brother and friends north of Cannon Beach.
The shark attacked him between swells, Tanner recalled. He had his forearms on the board, with his legs dangling in the murky water below.
Something grabbed his right leg and yanked him below the waves.
He knew it was a shark, he told reporters.
And he thought he might die.
Steve Gehrig, who was surfing nearby, told CBS affiliate KOIN that he saw the shark’s dorsal fin and a fellow surfer in trouble.
“He kind of just lurched real funny,” Gehrig said, according to the station. “It looked like he had slipped off his board but a little more violently than you normally [see people] slip off their board. And I was like ‘Did he just slip, or was that something different?'”
In the ocean, Tanner was jabbing at the sandpaper-rough skin of the shark.
The punch to gills worked. The shark released Tanner.
But he wasn’t out of danger yet. He was still in open water, 200 yards from the safety of the shore.
Tanner, 29, began to paddle toward the shore, afraid the shark would follow the blood streaming from the 26-inch gash that stretched from his upper thigh to his ankle.
“I just paddled my life away,” he said. “That was probably the scariest moment, trying to get back to the shore and leaving a trail of blood.”
Forty yards from shore, he was able to catch a wave that helped him cover the distance to shore faster, the AP said.
Still, the injured surfer knew he wasn’t in the clear.
Tanner, a critical care nurse at Legacy Emmanuel Hospital’s intensive care unit, knew he could bleed out on the beach. And he could feel himself getting lightheaded, a sign that he was going into shock.
He fought to keep his eyes open and to convey important information to the people trying to save him.
“Joe stayed conscious the whole time was able to ask questions,” witness Jeffrey Rose told KOIN. “Gave us his blood type, his phone number. He was directing them, telling them how to fix him, and they were putting a tourniquet on him with the leash.”
Tanner told his rescuers to cut off his wet suit, which would save the paramedics time when they arrived.
And he had one more request: He wanted to be flown to Legacy Emmanuel, the Portland hospital where he works.
He knew the staff there, and he trusted them.
“I remember being in the trauma bay and two of my co-workers were on either side of me,” he said Wednesday. “They were in drapes and lights and they literally looked angelic. It was like a breath of relief to see these familiar faces.”
At the hospital, with three surgeries behind him and extensive physical therapy ahead, he called a news conference and told his shark tale, 16 days after the attack.
There have been 1,301 reported unprovoked shark attacks in the United States, according to a database by the Florida Museum of Natural History, which has compiled records of attacks dating back centuries.
Florida is the nation’s runaway leader in attacks, with at least 748.
Oregon has recorded 26 attacks.
It’s unclear what species of shark attacked Tanner, but he said he’d been told by experts that it was likely a great white, according to the AP.