Catonsville native has escaped death twice while filming sharks

Nick Caloyianis has cheated death by shark at least twice in his career as an award-winning underwater videographer.

Somewhere in his basement are the jaws of a bull shark that almost tore off his foot in 1993. And sitting in his neatly manicured backyard is a shark cage that was battered off the Cape Cod coast last summer by the largest great white shark ever captured on film in New England.

Caloyianis, on assignment for Discovery Channel's Shark Week, was holding the camera.

His production, including the dramatic footage of the close encounter, will appear at 10 p.m. Sunday, opening night of Discovery's popular summer feature, now in its 25th season.

"It's not a shark attack film, it's a film about why sharks are in New England," says the lanky Catonsville resident whose fascination with sharks of all kinds goes back more than three decades.

Last summer, great white sharks formed a buffet line off the coast of Cape Cod to feast on hundreds of gray seals, forcing officials to close five miles of beaches. For Caloyianis and Greg Skomal, a biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, the chance for a front-row seat to watch the feeding frenzy and to tag some sharks with satellite transmitters was enticing.

Scientists want to learn the winter migration pattern of great whites and other behavioral traits.

On Aug. 24, the two divers lowered themselves into an aluminum cage floating next to a whale carcass being used to attract sharks. A female great white, about 18 feet long and weighing more than 3,000 pounds, came by to check them out. On one pass over the top, the shark became entangled in the lines that attached the cage to its orange floats.

Suddenly, more than a ton of muscle began pummeling the cage. The bars quivered and bent. The door sprang open.

"I'm thinking, 'What happens if this shark gets in this cage?'" says Skomal. "The part that gets into the cage first is the pointy end with the big teeth.

"I'm plastered against the bottom of the cage, wondering if my life is about to end, and Nick is between the shark and me, still running the camera. For him, it's all about the shot," says Skomal, who can laugh about it now.

Skomal slammed the door shut and the shark untangled itself and got away. Caloyianis got what he came for.

"We were almost done in" is Caloyianis' shorthand for the minute of mayhem.

To make "Jaws Comes Home," he and longtime collaborator Clarita Berger spent 85 consecutive days in New England to get their footage. Shark tagging requires bluebird-clear skies for the spotter plane to work and calm seas so that the crew on the "sticker boat" has a stable platform to attach the tags.

They wrote the script and shot and field-edited the footage.

"He's an old-school filmmaker, a dying breed," says Skomal. "I'd rather dive with nobody else."

Caloyianis developed his interest in oceanography while a student at Catonsville High School, where he played baseball and ran cross country. He entered the University of Maryland in 1969 and majored in zoology. His career path was established in his junior year, when he took a course with Eugenie Clark, a noted ichthyologist and diver who specialized in shark behavior.

"She was an inspiration and still is. She's 89 and was diving up until four months ago," he says.

As Clark's graduate teaching assistant, he worked with her on National Geographic magazine articles and traveled throughout Mexico, sharpening his photographic skills.

Six years later, he caught a major break as a member of a salvage dive team on the Andrea Doria, a luxury liner that was rammed by the passenger ship Stockholm and sunk off the coast of Nantucket in 1956. They recovered the safe used by first-class passengers, which expedition leader Peter Gimbel opened on live TV in 1984 to reveal money and travelers checks, but not the wealth long rumored to be inside.

For a decade beginning in the mid-1980s, Caloyianis and Berger worked on 30 to 40 projects for National Geographic, many of them about sharks.

Caloyianis won an Emmy and an Oscar in 1998 for cinematography in the National Geographic special, "America's Endangered, Don't Say Goodbye." Other Emmys followed. He has supplied underwater video for TV commercials and movies. He and Berger were honored with a CINE Gold Award for the 2000 documentary, "Realm of the Lobster."

Closer to home, Caloyianis and Berger have volunteered their video talents to document a number of Chesapeake Bay improvement projects, including artificial reef construction and oyster habitat restoration.

"There is no other individual who has spent more time beneath the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and documented its marine life," said Martin Gary, a Department of Natural Resources biologist who learned to dive from Caloyianis. "His visuals are a powerful legacy for future generations."

Next year, Caloyianis expects to begin work on a project he's dreamed about for 20 years: A 3-D IMAX film about the Chesapeake Bay.

But for now, he hopes people reflect on the message of "Jaws Comes Home."

"Those white sharks are back, but it's tenuous. We need to learn a lot more about them. The answer is conservation," he says. "The ocean should be for everybody and everything. The sharks belong out there."