It may well gain a place among the greatest survival tales of the seas. An Australian diver who was seized head first by the jaws of a great white shark managed to free himself from its clutches by stabbing a chisel into its head.

Eric Nerhus was diving off Cape Howe on Australia’s southeast coast with his son and a group of friends when the 10-foot shark launched its vicious assault.

The great white clamped its jaws around his head, smashing his face mask and breaking his nose. With blood pouring from his wounds and unable to see, Nerhus is thought to have swung his arms, clubbing the shark with the chisel he was using to get abalone shellfish.

But the ordeal for the 41-year-old father was not over. As he tried to swim to safety the shark returned, clenching its jaws around Nerhus’s torso and leaving deep lacerations in his side.

Miraculously though, the diver was again able to wrestle himself free and was hauled back aboard his boat by his 25-year-old son. Nerhus told rescuers that he had fought his way free by lunging at the shark’s head with a chisel, believing he managed to stab it in the eye, forcing it to release its grip.

Nerhus was flown to hospital with a broken nose, suffering from blood loss and shock, and is in a serious but stable condition after his ordeal, which saw him being half swallowed by the enormous animal.

Doctors said that he was lucky to be alive and may require surgery.

According to a witnesses, the 41-year-old was diving for abalone shellfish off the coast, south of Sydney, when the shark first grabbed him by the head.

"He was actually bitten by the head down — the shark swallowed his head," said Dennis Luobikis, a fellow diver who saw the dramatic scenes.

"He pushed his abalone chisel into its head while it was biting and it let him go and swam away," said Luobikis.

"When he came to us he was conscious and alert but had a broken nose and lacerations to both sides of his torso and chest — bite marks all the way around," a spokeswoman for the rescue service said.

"Eric is a tough boy. He’s super fit," Luobikis said. "But I would say that would test anyone’s resolve, being a fish lunch.

"He’d have a better chance of winning the lottery and I think he would have rather done that."

"The brunt of the bite was taken by his lead-weight vest. Its all over your torso. Eric said to me at the wharf that his weight vest saved him," he added.

Abalone divers spend six to eight hours underwater and use lead weight vests, rather than lead belts, to stay down. The vests spread the lead weight across the body, minimising back strain.

Nerhus told fellow divers he didn’t see the shark coming as the water was so dirty that visibility was severely limited. "It was black. He didn’t see it coming, but he felt the bite and then started getting shaken, and that’s when he knew he was in the mouth of the shark," said Michael Mashado, another local diver.

Australian waters, which are home to some of the world’s deadliest sea life, boast one of the highest rates of shark attacks in the world. Scientists say there is an average of 15 shark attacks a year in the country, with just over one of those per annum proving fatal.

Attacks by great whites though, are usually deadly because of the massive size of the predators and the sheer force of their bite.

Since 2000, ten people are been killed by the animals, including a 21-year-old who died last January after being attacked by three sharks while swimming off an island on Australia’s north eastern coast.