Mike DeGruy ’75, whose passion for the ocean and the various species that make their home there led him to an award-winning career as a documentary filmmaker, died Saturday in a helicopter crash in eastern Australia. He was 60.
Mike DeGruy filming along Bayou La Batre, Alabama, in 2011
DeGruy was featured in a cover story in the summer 2011 issue of NC State magazine. The story looked at DeGruy’s return to the Gulf Coast, near where he grew up, to document the aftermath of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
DeGruy grew up in Mobile, Ala., exploring the labyrinth of streams and channels that flow throughout the lower regions of Alabama into Mobile Bay and then into the Gulf of Mexico. He made his professional home in Santa Barbara, California, but returned to the Gulf Coast last year to explore the scientific and cultural impact of the Gulf oil spill.
“I’m emotionally connected to this place, and that’s what’s driving me,” DeGruy said in the article. “I care about these people. Kids I grew up with are running things around here now and, as a consequence, they’re being hurt by what’s happening.”
DeGruy was working on a project for National Geographic when a helicopter he was flying in with Australian television writer-producer Andrew Wight crashed soon after takeoff. Wight, who was piloting the helicopter, also died in the crash.
Cameron, in a statement to National Geographic, described DeGruy as “one of the ocean’s warriors. A man who spoke for the wonders of the sea as a biologist, filmmaker, and submersible pilot, and who spoke against those who would destroy the sea’s web of life. He was a warm, funny, extremely capable man and one of the world’s top underwater cinematographers. His passion for exploration and for the wonders beneath the sea was boundless.”
DeGruy majored in marine zoology at NC State (where he was a member of the diving team), and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in marine biology at the University of Hawaii. But he was introduced to underwater photographer before completing his doctorate, and a different sort of career was born. Because of his education, DeGruy was comfortable talking with the scientists — and them with him — who were often featured in his films.
While DeGruy made his mark with amazing films from the depths of the ocean, including one incident in which he almost died after suffering a vicious shark attack. The Gulf project forced DeGruy to do much of his work above ground, talking with the people who were devastated by the oil spill.
“I used to make real pretty programs,” DeGruy said during his time along the Gulf Coast. “I would spend extraordinary amounts of time doing everything in my power to make things look as good as they could.
“Well, I’m not sure that was effective. People were still bulldozing forests and building shopping centers and dumping crap into the ocean and into the rivers. Maybe what I should be doing is showing people the way it is and maybe they’ll get disgusted by it.”
Michael Hanrahan, an independent film producer who worked with DeGruy on the Gulf project, said Monday that DeGuy was in the process of seeking additional funding to be able to make the film he wanted about what had happened in his home region.
“Mike was determined to continue with that project,” Hanrahan said. “He felt that what we came home from the Gulf with was not a complete enough story. The oil-spill project was the one he cared most deeply about.”
Hanrahan said DeGruy was one of the world’s best underwater cinematographers.
“He was driven by his love of nature,” Hanrahan said. “He loved and appreciated the natural world and wanted to share that with people.”
DeGruy is survived by his wife, Mimi, his son, Max, and his daughter, Frances.
The 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to send devastating ripples throughout the many communities in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and elsewhere that rely on the Gulf for seafood, tourism and the jobs that come with oil exploration.
But Mike DeGruy ’75 is hoping that something positive will come out of the oil spill and its aftermath – more funding for scientific research of the Gulf of Mexico.
DeGruy grew up in Mobile, Alabama, before coming to NC State as an undergraduate student and then on to a successful career as an underwater photographer and nature filmmaker. He lives in California now, but returned to the Gulf region this year to make a documentary on what the oil spill had done to the area.
We explore DeGruy’s journey in a story in the upcoming summer issue of NC State magazine. Part of the story looks at DeGruy’s frustration with many of the scientists he encountered in the Gulf region. They were either unwilling or unable to provide concrete answers to questions about the environmental impact of the oil spill in 2010.
But DeGruy says much of the problem is not with the scientists themselves, but with the lack of adequate funding for the sort of research that needs to be done to more fully understand a region as environmentally complex as the Gulf of Mexico. He is hoping that will change as a result of the spill.
“Research in the Gulf of Mexico is expensive,” DeGruy says. “You need ships and you need methods to go down deep. Historically, the federal government doesn’t support that level of research, not on a consistent basis.”
Kenneth L. Heck Jr., a professor of marine sciences at the University of Alabama, says research for the Gulf of Mexico has traditionally been underfunded because it is far from Washington and has had relatively few problems. As a result, he said, scientists lack basic baseline information about coastal systems.
Like DeGruy, he is hoping that may change now that there is a greater appreciation for the importance of the Gulf of Mexico in terms of seafood production, oil and gas production and tourism.
“It usually takes a disaster to free up funding, and this has been a big disaster,” Heck says. “I think there is a recognition that the scientists have a role to play and they need to have the resources. I’m hopeful that things will be different now.”
Read more about DeGruy’s visit to the Gulf and his efforts to document the unfolding story there in the summer issue of NC State magazine.
A couple of months ago we posteda video of a talk Mike deGruy ’75 of Santa Barbara, Calif., who has been called “one of the world’s greatest underwater cameramen,” gave during a TED conference in April that brought together ocean experts. Since then, deGruy has returned to his hometown — Mobile, Alabama — to see the impact of the Gulf oil spill, and he plans to return in a couple of weeks.
He spoke withNC State magazine this week about his first trip to the Gulf and what he learned. “The first trip was, in a nutshell, a giant research trip for three weeks,” says deGruy, who owns the Film Crew, which makes productions for the likes of PBS, National Geographic, and the Discovery Channel. On his second trip to the Gulf, he plans to film and capture what’s happening under water and to document “the story of the scientists and what they are up to.”
In his interview with us, he provides a fascinating description of diving near oil and explains why the trip was a “real enlightening experience.” After the jump, you’ll also find a first-person account of the time that a shark nearly killed him, which appeared in a 1992 issue of NC State magazine. We’ll talk with deGruy again after he returns from his second trip to the Gulf. If there are any questions you’d like for us to ask him, leave a comment.
Why did you go to the Gulf Coast?
I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and a lot of my childhood friends and family are either impacted by or are involved in this oil mess down there. I spent a lot of time as a kid in the rivers and the Mobile Bay and the Deltas and the Gulf of Mexico. That’s actually where I learned to scuba dive. There’s a warm spot in my heart for that area and for the people in that area. I wanted to go down there and see what I could do to help tell some of the stories and find out what was going on.
What were the stories you found there?
It’s an interesting answer to that question.
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.