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An Australian man has been hailed a “hero” after repeatedly punching a great white shark until it released his wife’s leg. Police said the couple were surfing at a beach near Port Macquarie, four hours north of Sydney, on Saturday morning when she was bitten twice and injured on her right leg.

“Her companion was forced to punch the fish until it let go,” police said in the statement. The man was later identified as Mark Rapley.

Paramedics treated 35-year-old Chantelle Doyle at the beach before she was later airlifted to a major hospital. She has since undergone more than nine hours of emergency surgery to help repair nerve damage, 10 News First Sydney reported. There were no signs of impact to major arteries, meaning it is unlikely she will lose her leg, the station reported.

“We’ve had some really serious and tragic shark encounters over the past couple of months along the coastline, so to paddle out of your own safety zone, into an area where you know there is a large shark, I think is amazing … a tremendous act of bravery,” state Surf Life Saving chief executive Steven Pearce said. 

One witness who was surfing nearby when the attack occurred called Rapley a “hero” for taking on what appeared to be a great white shark up to three metres (10 feet) long.

“He started laying into the shark because it wouldn’t let go,” Jed Toohey told the Daily Telegraph. “He saved her life… He was really incredible.”

Rapley played down his efforts, saying he “did what anyone would have done in that moment”.

“When you see the mother of your child, and your support, everything that’s who you are, so you just react,” Rapley told 10 News First Sydney.

There have been five fatal shark attacks in Australian waters in 2020, higher than the country’s average of three deadly attacks a year.

Just last month, a shark pulled a 10-year-old boy from a fishing boat off Tasmania. He survived after his father jumped in the water to save him.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.