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.
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.”
The Gulf project was a bit of a departure for DeGruy, who rose to fame as an underwater photographer who traveled the world to make films for the likes of Discovery Channel, the BBC and PBS. He won multiple Emmy and other awards for his cinematography. DeGruy was the director of underseas photography for James Cameron’s 2005 documentary “Last Mysteries of the Titanic.”
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.