The late Mike deGruy filmed iconic underwater footage that wowed audiences, drawing the admiration of David Attenborough and James Cameron. A fond documentary by his wife reveals the real man
20 January 2021
Mimi Armstrong deGruy
Streaming on Apple and Amazon Prime from 19 January
IT SPEAKS volumes about the kind of person Mike deGruy was that, after he nearly lost his life in a shark attack, he not only continued diving, he returned to the scene to figure out where he had gone wrong.
The film-maker and biologist is the subject of Diving Deep, a documentary directed by his widow, fellow film-maker Mimi Armstrong deGruy, in the wake of his death. Mike DeGruy was killed in a helicopter crash – along with Australian film-maker Andrew Wight – while on assignment in Australia in 2012.
The film takes a fond look at his adventurous and compassionate life, leaving no doubt that he lived it to the fullest and what he would want his legacy to be.
In 30 years of marine film-making, deGruy gained a reputation for both his stubborn pursuit of the shot, often in unprecedented conditions, and his passion: he was remembered at his funeral as a “human exclamation mark”.
In 1986, deGruy filmed a volcano eruption in Hawaii as experienced underwater, pushing his bodyboard straight into the oncoming lava. Later, he put himself in the path of hunting orcas, capturing the first film of them seizing sea lion pups from the water’s edge – footage that is now iconic in nature film-making.
David Attenborough – who voiced deGruy’s footage for many years, including on the Emmy and Bafta-winning The Blue Planet – recalls it causing “a sensation” at the BBC: “Everybody was talking about it… Those pioneering sequences hold their place in the history of discovery.”
Between archival footage and fond recollections from family and collaborators, deGruy is an engaging person to get to know. His life’s story is one that might inspire you to make more of yours, if only through the sheer force of his enthusiasm.
DeGruy was a risk-taker, but an informed one. His fearlessness in the face of sharks was rooted in an understanding of them and their behaviour, so when one took off part of his right arm while he was filming in the Marshall Islands in 1978, requiring 11 operations, deGruy’s response was to make a film exploring why.
“When a shark took off part of his arm while shooting, deGruy’s response was to make a film exploring why”
He later campaigned, as a shark-attack survivor, for shark conservation and used his clout as a fixture on cult TV show Shark Week to push back against sensationalist treatment of them. This led him to be identified on television news as a victim of “Sharkholm syndrome”.
But it wasn’t until the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where deGruy had grown up learning to freedive, that he really embraced activism. The devastation he documented at the scene, and the reluctance from many quarters to accept responsibility for it, drew out a new and urgent purpose to his film-making.
Footage of deGruy rallying against the disparity between polluters’ profits and funding for science was what prompted his widow to put together Diving Deep.
Today, more than a decade later, the full impact of Deepwater Horizon is still unclear because so much of the ocean is undocumented, especially at depth. “We were in some ways working in the dark,” says Charles Fisher, a marine biologist at Pennsylvania State University.
As the technology evolved to take him to greater and greater depths, DeGruy was drawn to uncover the mysteries of the deep and what lessons they might hold for humanity. He had been due to join James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, venturing into the Mariana Trench, when he died.
Paying tribute to deGruy in the film, Cameron offers a theory for the lack of impetus and investment in deep-sea exploration compared with that for outer space. The space race, he says, represents man’s desire to conquer his environment, but you don’t conquer the ocean, he says. “You understand the ocean, you become intimate with the ocean, you let it teach you.”
DeGruy’s life stands as a testament to the possibilities of that approach. It is demonstrated in the film’s opening sequence as he ventures more than 117 metres deep in a diving suit, an underwater astronaut wearing a blissful smile, a man completely immersed.
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