Underwater Filmmaker Turns Focus to Gulf Oil Spill

July 23, 2010
By Cherry Crayton

A couple of months ago we posted a 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 with NC 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.

I originally went down there expecting to do a couple of things. One was to see how well my friends and family were doing. And two, I was interested in the science of what’s happening. In other words, I wanted to talk to a bunch of scientists and find out from their point of view what was happening in this area prior to the oil and how the oil might impact their specific study sites. Also, a lot of the coverage I had seen was from the surface: What happens when the oil hits the marshlands and the birds and the reefs and some of the things on the surface? I’m an underwater guy, and my interest is on the underwater. So I wanted to tell the underwater stories, and the underwater story is the scientific backbone. I got down there, and I had a little medical issue, which is why I’m not there right now. I had a blown out disc in my neck and it sort of slowed me down physically and couldn’t do a lot of diving. What I ended up doing was a lot of talking. I had a lot of meetings with legislators and governors and people from various government organizations like NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the National Marine Fisheries Services and a lot of the marine institutions in the area. Inevitably, you run in to a lot of fishermen and little mom and pop fish stores that are relying on the seafood down there. And what happened on my first trip caught me off guard a little bit—I found that the story that was most intriguing to me, at least immediately, was that of the people.

What was that story?
When the Exxon Valdez Spill hit Alaska in 1989, I read a lot about that. One of the most interesting areas of reading was the impact that the spill had on the societies and the cultures of people that depended entirely on local fish and the oceans for their livelihood. A lot of these [societies and cultures] were subsistence-based groups of people and suddenly that was instantly removed. And what happened was that the societies imploded. They started getting violent toward one another. A lot of suicides occurred. They unraveled at the seams and fell apart. When I was down at the Gulf, I started seeing little hints of this behavior going on where people are so utterly frustrated and helpless feeling that they started making bad decisions.

A man from Mobile—well, he was in Mobile; I don’t know if he was from there—killed himself. He was a boat captain. And a lot of people were getting upset with neighboring states when they saw these people from out-of-state boats coming into their areas being paid by British Petroleum (BP) when they weren’t being paid. They were angry about that. I started thinking, “This is déjà vu. This is what happened in Alaska.” I started worrying a lot about the cultures and societies that depended on seafood for their livelihood. In fact, it is their lifestyle: to fish. For generations, that’s all they’ve done and now it was all taken away from them. BP was paying some of them to go out in the water and try to do what they could to collect oil but certainly not all of them. So there was the inconsistency in moneys being distributed, and it didn’t go down well. I started to see this and worried very much about the local people holding it together and not repeating some of the occurrences in Alaska during the Exxon spill. Basically, those were things that I was thinking about. Now, I did get in the water several times and looked at the oil from underwater and looked at some of the seagrass beds before the oil hit and talked to scientists out in the field and followed them into the field. I couldn’t do much about it because my neck and arm were completely bonkers. But it was a real enlightening experience for me.

How so? What was it like to go under water?

I went to areas that had oil. That was the whole point. One trip I took was with a scientist at the Food and Drug Administration and a scientist from Sea Grant. We went out about 30 miles south of Mobile and we were looking for Sargassum seaweed, this floating nursery ground for so many animals. We didn’t find much, which was a bit distributing because on previous days there had been some there with oil in it. Scientists were concerned that [the oil] was going to make [the Sargassum seaweek] sink; if that were to happen, there would be entire communities of animals that would go down with it. It would be disastrous if we started losing a lot of the Sargassum. The Gulf of Mexico has the second largest aggregation of Sargassum seaweed in the world. (The first being the Sargasso Sea off the Atlantic Coast.) So I was worried about the Sargassum and wanted to go look at it. We never found it, but what we did find was huge, thick slicks of oil. That’s where I went under, and the differences were startling. I didn’t go into the thick stuff. It was floating on the surface and was jet black, about a half an inch thick. There were vast number of rows about 20 to 30 feet wide each separated by a hundred yards or so. So there were parallel bans of oil, and I would jump in between them and swim underneath the thick part.

What was that like?
It was almost like you hit a wall. The sun was directly overhead. It was about high noon when we were out there. So I would start heading into this stuff and there would be a sheer wall. There appeared to a vertical wall that was just dark underneath it or behind it. I would go into that and my original thought was that I had just dived into a bunch of oil. That turned out to not be the case. It was actually the shade from the sun above not being able to penetrate the floating oil on the surface and it was creating this vertical and incredibly dark shadow. As you enter in that shadow and look up, you can see the oil floating on that surface. It was a black, thick mass. As the waves went underneath it, it would break up and crack—maybe a quarter-inch cracks would appear—and the sun would come breaking through, and it was this weird looking stuff. And as you can imagine, it stuck to everything. You couldn’t possibly get it off. The boat took four hours to clean after that day to get the oil off of it. It was just this unbelievable thick stuff. It wasn’t dispersed oil; it was fresh oil. The dispersed oil is a completely different look altogether. This stuff had fairly definite lines on the outside as well as underneath it. So there was not a lot of mixing with the water. The water remained fairly clear right up to it from underneath and on the sides it had a fairly clear edge to it. Sometimes it would spread out to maybe a foot and thin out before it dropped off and went away. But often it would just be a fine line as though it was cut by a knife. And it was completely opaque to the sun except for the cracks that would form. The waves would go underneath and it would close right back up; so it would open up for a moment and then close right back up. You got weird look of sunlight dancing through this thick oil. Now the dispersed oil is a completely different story.

How so?
There were no real definite lines in [the dispersed oil]. It was a lot thicker on the surface and looked a little bubbly. The water underneath was mixed in with the oil so as you got near it, suddenly you’re diving in oil and it would stick to you and then the edges of it would feather out for long, long distances and it seemed like it would never end. I worry tremendously about [the dispersed oil]. I imagine that if I were a marine organism with gills and have this oil stuck to my gills it would be pretty awful. If I were a little juvenile shrimp or a crab and this stuff was ticking to my swimmerets and my eyes and my bodies, I think it would be a nightmare to get away from it. I don’t know if they could get away from it, actually.

The dispersed oil and the non-dispersed oil, it’s unbelievable how invasive this stuff is; having the ability to completely block out the sun is pretty impressive considering we were about 100 miles away from the source—maybe 200 miles—from where the oil was coming out. It had to go through all of Louisiana and then Mississippi and then Alabama to get to where I was. That’s a long way. Just to see how thick it was, was unbelievable.

What else stands out from your first trip?
The sheer desperation in the faces and the voices in the people who had no livelihoods anymore. They closed down the fishing; the seafood industry is crashing. These people are desperate, and seeing the desperate faces of people [who are probably thinking], “How am I going to feed my family? How am I going to make a living?”—it was disheartening. And you don’t know what to tell them. What can you say and what can you do? There are just no really good answers to these questions. That really does stick with me.

[Another] thing that sticks with me is that from the scientific point of view: that this is an experiment of the likes of what we’ve never had. There are so many questions that are unanswered and just are continuing to pop up about what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s an ecosystem game-changer. The scientific community is completely overwhelmed with this problem and what it means, and they often don’t even know where to start. So what they’ve done is gone back and look at all the baseline data that they have; and immediately after the spill, they started collecting more baseline data and are trying to get as much information as they can before the oil hits. Then when the oil arrives at the area of their study sites, they’ll repeat those experiments to try to figure out the oil’s impact. For years to come we’re going to be seeing some pretty eloquent scientific papers come out and outline what has happened to the Gulf. I think those are going to be pretty intriguing and amazing stuff.

What else do you want people to know about your experience in the Gulf?
I think the thing that really sticks in my head is that when you start getting into the Delta, seeing that oil come up on the beach. I was staying at a beach house on the Gulf of Mexico, and I was down there when Tropical Storm Alex came through a couple of weeks ago. Alex changed the wind entirely and it completely covered the beach at the house where I was staying in with oil. There was thick oil all over it.  I walked out there and the oil stuck between my toes and it would not come off.  It was like a really, really thick grease. The consistency of the stuff—you just couldn’t get it off. And it was everywhere.  All night cleanup crews came with shovels and bulldozers and various instruments to clean the oil up. And I’m looking at this and thinking, “What have we done? What have we done?” And that’s just on the surface. What’s happening in the water and what about the animals that are living in this stuff? How are they coping? It was a disheartening feeling to see all of this and wonder what the heck is going on between 5,000 feet where this oil is entering the Gulf all the way to the surface. It was overwhelming to consider what was happening to the animals living in the water and how can they possibly get away from this stuff and how can they cope.


Editor’s note: 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. It’s reprinted below.

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


One Response to “Underwater Filmmaker Turns Focus to Gulf Oil Spill”

  1. Merle Savage says:

    Great Story! Here is my story:

    Our planet is being destroyed, along with the inhabitants, one spill at a time.

    BP’s deception comes as no surprise to any of us. Please American people think about it: If there had been no explosion in the beginning, would we have known about the gushing oil from the well? How many of the abandon oceans oil wells are gushing oil? Shouldn’t here be an agency that monitors all oil companies’ drilling action in our ocean beds? Oh, that’s right, there is! However, just like BP, Exxon and the rest of the oil companies, government official agencies are busy covering their lies, and dancing the Dance of Deliberate Deception. Over the last 80 years our US Government has become good at the side step dance also.

    Great, the oil has stopped for now, however, Crude oil continues to invade the Gulf; as BP, the US Government, and other official agencies monitoring the toxic crude, continues to FIDDLE. That is what I called the Dance of Deliberate Deception. No one will come forward with the intestinal fortitude, and declare the obvious – that crude oil is toxic to breathe. I have been told by OSHA that a medical study cannot be conducted until after 6 months of exposure. WHAT? There have been 21 years since the exposure of the crude oil in Prince William Sound, and no one is listening. So, after 6 months of workers in the gulf breathe in the crude oil, a study can be conducted? That leads us to believe that the government is holding up the rug, while BP sweeps known reports under the same rug, and the other agencies conduct the Dance of Deliberate Deception on top of the rug.

    President Obama, how about admitting that the crude oil is toxic, and demand BP provide respirators for the oil cleanup workers, and compensation for the Gulf unemployment caused by the disaster.

    In 1989 Exxon told the cleanup workers the same story, that the crude oil is not toxic. Some of us are living proof of the toxic exposure, and many others have died. Please view the YouTube video, and help get the message to Gulf residents, BP crude oil cleanup workers, and President Obama. Respirators need to be supplied to oil cleanup crews.
    Thank you.

    Toxic Crude Oil In Gulf

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