Shark attack survivor: ‘My whole leg was in its mouth'

Shark attack survivor shares his story

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Joe Tanner is only 29, and already has lived so many incredible journeys.

Tanner has volunteered at an orphanage in Africa. He was a deep sea fisherman in Alaska. In September, he became a certified critical care nurse at Legacy Emanuel Hospital in north Portland, Oregon. Now, Tanner has the fish tale he'll be telling the rest of his life.

As a surfer on the Oregon coast, sharks are taboo to talk about.

"You kind of always think about it though," Tanner said Wednesday morning in his first news conference since his shark attack.

He said it was about 4 p.m. on Oct. 10 at Ecola State Park near Cannon Beach, when he went back out with some friends to catch a second set of waves.

The 911 calls came in shortly after:

Dispatch: "911 what is your emergency?"

Caller: "Indian beach, shark attack!"

Dispatch: "Has someone been bitten?"

Caller: "Yeah, someone's bitten in the leg."

Tanner remembers it clearly.

"I think I was propped up off my board. All of  a sudden, something grabbed me from below."

Like other regular surfers, Tanner had heard the stories. His first thought: This can't be actually happening. His next thought: He was going to die if he didn't act fast.

"I couldn't reach the nose. There was no way I was going to find an eye so I just had gills in front of me, and I just figured those are pretty sensitive, so I just started to go to town on him," Tanner said.

 

Punching the shark's gills as fast as he could, Tanner could feel the shark release him.

Surf buddy West Woodworth was a few feet away on his surfboard.

"It was fast and confusing," Woodworth said. "I realized what happened and when he was getting back on his board, I saw a fin do a really quick turn and then go down."

"I just literally saw this much of the shark," Tanner explained as he gauged with his arms while sitting down with a leg brace on. "It was really hard and the skin was super rough, like the grainiest sand paper in existence."

Tanner paddled onto shore on his own. Then, his nursing skills kicked in, giving orders for first aid. Looking at his injuries now, he knows how lucky he is a major artery wasn't hit.

"My whole leg was in its mouth. My uncle took a tape measure and it's a 26-inch wide mouth," he said pointing out the jagged horseshoe shaped stitches he now has from his upper right thigh, down to his ankle.

Experts believe it likely was a great white shark, the only one big enough to cause that size of bite.

Three surgeries later, Tanner will start physical therapy in a few weeks, and will return to work at Emanuel on light duty in December. As for surfing again?

"I've thought about it a lot, and surfing is a meditation for me, so I'll be back out there for sure. It'll probably be a little different for a  while. I'll have a lot of people to go with me," he said, laughing.

Tanner said he wanted to talk publicly about his experience so that other surfers are prepared in case this happens to them. He says they should have tourniquets in their surf bags and know their blood type so the hospital can help faster. Tanner also says it helped to wear a thick wetsuit just to put more material between you and a predator.

And know that fall and winter is shark season. The fish eat seals and sea lions, who are feeding on the salmon runs.

Doctors say Tanner is having some nerve issues, but is on track to make a full or almost full recovery.


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