TED Features Alumnus, Underwater Filmmaker

April 16, 2010
By Cherry Crayton

Check out the above video of underwater filmmaker Mike deGruy’s talk during TED’s The Mission Blue Voyage, which brought together ocean experts to share their knowledge over a four-day adventure to the Galapagos Islands this week (April 10-14). deGruy, a 1975 NC State graduate and zoology major, owns the Film Crew, which makes films for the likes of PBS, BBC, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. He’s been shooting the oceans for more than 30 years and has been described as “one of the world’s greatest underwater cameramen.” In the talk featured on TED, he shares how he became fascinated with octopus at age 5 or 6, and he describes what it’s like to go deep into the water and explore the mid-water community. Interspersed with his comments are clips of the deep waters shot by his company.

NC State magazine profiled deGruy in a cover story in 1992. Included in the profile was deGruy’s first-person account of the time a shark nearly ripped his arm off and killed him. Read the account after the jump.

That was one of those situations when I was completely unprepared for what unfolded. I had taken some time off from graduate work at the University of Hawaii to be manager of a marine research lab, and I was scuba diving with a friend in about 60 feet of water at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. It was a reconnaissance dive to find out what research might be done there.

I was diving in a lagoon on a pinnacle, one of these vertical columns of coral that come up from about a 200-foot-deep sandy bottom up to within about 40 feet of the surface. Gray reef sharks were very common in Eniwetok. They’re actually very aggressive, relatively small sharks. There were a couple of them that I was taking pictures of. This was actually before my filming career began, and I was taking still pictures of a lot of big fish that were coming very close to me.

Usually when you take a still picture of a shark, you hope it’s a good one because when the strobe fires, the shark swims away and that’s the end of it. Yet these wouldn’t swim away. They’d come back for more and more and more of it. It was a great roll and that was terrific—filling the frame with just the gill slits and the nose and good eyeball shots. It was phenomenal.

Then, when those two sharks left, I noticed a third one, a female I hadn’t seen before, well out into the blue water.

It was going through a very awkward behavior. It was in a threat posture: That is, the pectoral fins, the fins on the sides of its body, were lowered. The snout was upturned, and it had an awkward S-shape to the body. Now, sharks are usually very streamlined and beautiful. But this was a very definite departure from that. Its back was arched, and it went into a tail-down posture—spring-loaded, ready to go.

So it was in this posture. And I recognized it; I knew what it was. But the more I looked at it, the more injured it appeared to be and the less interested in me. It had a series of teeth scars going underneath the dorsal fin, the fin on its back, and extending under the belly. It had been bitten, and, short of being attacked by a 90-foot eel, it had been bitten by another shark. So I mistakenly reidentified it as an injured animal and took its picture.

The moment the strobe fired, so did the shark. It broke out of the posture and instantly attacked. I tried to defend myself by pushing the camera out in front of it, but the shark just pushed the camera to the side and bit down on my arm, shook and took off the top of my arm, then did what appeared to be a back loop and came up from the bottom a second time. I kicked at it and luckily it grabbed my fin; the same thing—it shook and tore out a chunk of rubber from my fin—and then it swam over to my diving partner, who had a spear. It got past the spear, cut his left hand and swam away in the same posture.

I felt pressure at first, no pain. I felt tearing and pressure. And there was obviously a little bit of pain associated with it because it bit straight down to the bone and removed the muscle bundles on the top of my arm.

(I have no independent finger movement anymore. Since the entire muscle bundle, as well as the associated tendons, was removed, all the fingers now move together. There’s nothing obscene lean do with this hand! It was massive damage. Over about a two-year period, I had to have 11 operations, including two skin grafts and three tendon transfers.)

I came up to the surface and did a quick assessment of the damage and saw three very distinct streams of blood just spewing like fountains. So I used my other hand and clamped of as much as I could in my upper arm, rolled over on my back, inflated my buoyancy compensator and just started swimming toward the boat, which, unfortunately, I couldn’t find for quite a while because it was very rough. No one was in the boat, and it was anchored out to sea about 50-yard away. When you’re right at the surface of the water and the boat is floating on the surface and it’s rough water, you’re looking through waves. I couldn’t find it. I had no idea where it was. I was spinning in circles, holding off my arm.

It was a long swim back to the boat, needless to say. It was 25 minutes, bleeding like crazy, and I never thought I would make it.

I just knew that the rest of the shark’s buddies would come and finish me off. So I wasn’t afraid. There was nothing to make me go into any sort of panic situation. There was no way I was gonna make it. I’d resigned to that. You know, if you think you ‘re going to make it, if you think there’s a chance you might make it out of there, there’s room for fear. But when you ‘re 100 percent convinced that it’s over, then it’s easy. I just thought “Well III do my job and start heading back toward the boat. But this is it: The jig’s up, mate.”

I didn’t see my diving companion, Phil, again until I got to the boat. Until then, I thought, “That must be why I’m not being eaten, because he is.” And I’m sure he thought the same about me. We got separated at the surface. But sure enough, I got to the boat and there was blood on the gunwales. And so I yelled for him, and he was there. He helped me in the boat.

He wasn’t hurt as badly. He wasn’t bitten; it was more of an open-mouth rake across his hand. The shark didn’t clamp down, which is good, for if it had it would have taken part, if not all, of his hand.

But I had lost a lot of blood. I was dying; I was bleeding to death. That was what was going to happen if I didn’t get help real quickly. Interestingly, what usually kills shark-bite victims is loss of blood, and that’s exactly what was happening to me.

I pulled a line out from under the console and tied a little makeshift tourniquet. Phil wasn’t doing very well—he went into shock—and so, unfortunately, I was on my own. But you never know how you’re going to react in situations like that. I was lucky. I didn’t go into shock. So I just got on the radio to these military guys to tell them where I was. I could feel my life literally draining out of me, and I was telling them, “Guys, Hey! I don’t know how much longer you’re going to hear me chatting if you don’t find me!” I was trying to keep a sense of humor about it. I was making jokes. I said it was a funny feeling going on right now.

It started at my feet really, and it sort of worked its way back. Certainly nothing worked anymore, and I thought, “So this is it, huh?”
It’s funny, there’re things that I remembered. Very specific moments of my childhood that came rushing back in extremely clear memory. And they weren’t all good. I remembered a couple of things I had done to people that I’m not very proud of. I remembered those, and I felt bad.

During the 55 minutes on the boat, I felt my body quit working. My brain was functioning, so I had my mental faculties, but my body was gone. I couldn’t lift my legs; I couldn’t lift my head anymore. My veins were just collapsing. But my mouth worked: I could talk on the radio. My brain was working; I could tell them where I was.

It was one of those situations where we were in a relatively small boat, a 21-foot Boston whaler in whitecaps. A white boat in whitecaps vanishes from the air. Of course, in the helicopter, they couldn’t find us, and then suddenly they found us! And this was the really morbid thing—they didn’t tell me until later—the reason they found us is that our boat wasn’t white. It was red. – Mike deGruy, as told to Terri Leith

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