Shark attack, too close for comfort

August 21, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff writer

Nick Caloyianis thinks sharks have irresistible charisma -- and he knows they have sharp teeth.

The Catonsville-based underwater filmmaker, one of a half-dozen or so in the world who specialize in filming sharks, has a red and purple scar on his right leg to remind him -- a wound that looks a lot like a shark's swept-fin body.

While filming an agitated bull shark off Mexico's Isla Mujeres last year for National Geographic, Mr. Caloyianis nearly lost his foot and suffered severe hand lacerations when the animal attacked. It was the first time he had been bitten in almost 20 years of filming sharks.

The encounter can be seen on "Mysteries of the Deep," the season opener of "National Geographic Explorer," which will be broadcast at 9 p.m. tomorrow on cable's TBS.

The two-hour premiere also includes segments on the Cayman Islands and the film "Ocean Drifters," which follows a loggerhead turtle.

The shark sequence, titled "Crittercam," is about a compact camera that can be attached to marine creatures to document their travels. The attack occurred after attempts to affix the camera to the bull shark went awry. Host Robert Urich introduces the segment with the warning that "some of the scenes you're about to see may be disturbing." Not for the squeamish

Squeamish viewers may well be shaken by the scenes of Mr. Caloyianis writhing in a boat after the attack, his silver wet suit stained with great splotches of red as members of his team try to stop the bleeding.

Moments before, the 8-foot shark is seen sweeping suddenly toward the camera, opening its jaws and snapping. The picture tilts crazily, then the sandy ocean bottom rises slowly until the dropped camera settles with a bump. What's happening off-screen can only be imagined.

"I shoved it into the shark's mouth. The camera was running the whole time. It saved my life," Mr. Caloyianis says, showing a snapshot of the gouged camera shell.

"I've never blamed the shark for what happened to me," Mr. Caloyianis says in a program update filmed long after the attack.

"The shark was provoked, he just tried to bite the first thing in his path, which was me. . . . This is a case where somebody made a dumb

mistake," Mr. Caloyianis explained recently at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where he was working on yet another shark film for National Geographic.

He says that while he was on the ocean floor filming the shark, a fisherman swimming on the surface attempted to snag the animal with a pole-mounted hook.'Will I survive'

"Some things are still blurred to me," he admits, but adds he clearly remembers thinking, "Will I survive?

"I also remember pulling on my foot, and just seeing the shark's mouth beginning to move in that cutting, grinding routine, and thinking, 'If I don't do something I'm not going to have a foot.' "

In fending off the shark, he also suffered nerve and tendon damage to his right hand. (He still faces at least one more hand operation, but "the leg has come back 110 percent.")

He struggled to the surface as the shark continued attacking, and team members in a boat "finally got him off me" with more hooks and prods.

"I spent 21 days in the hospital," Mr. Caloyianis says.

After initial treatment at a small clinic on the Mexican island, he was moved to a larger clinic in Belize, then flown to Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital.

"Here are the shark's jaws," he says, showing a snapshot of himself in bed, smiling through an oval span of teeth a couple of feet wide. He notes a doctor cut his hand while inspecting the razor-edged incisors.

But Mr. Caloyianis, a 1973 graduate in marine biology at the University of Maryland, does suffer remorse about the trophy, and says he has put the jaws somewhere in his basement.

"They're certainly not on my office wall," he says, "and probably never will be." He says he would not have killed the shark for doing what sharks do naturally.Concern about tourists

Mexican authorities demanded that the shark be killed, fearing that once it had tasted human blood it would become a danger to tourists. But Mr. Caloyianis scoffs at the old superstition.

The film project ironically represented Mr. Caloyianis' desire to break away from the familiar shark films that emphasize the animals' ferocity. Mr. Caloyianis says he wanted to be part of the project because it was genuine scientific research as opposed to a film aimed at titillating viewers with violent shark behavior.

"That shark also became the world's first open-sea shark photographer," he says, explaining that after the attack, marine biologist Greg Marshall and crew captured the shark and successfully affixed to its dorsal fin the small video camera.

For several hours it recorded fascinating shark-view footage, some of it seen in tomorrow's program, until fishermen recaptured the animal and killed it.

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