Helicopter Crash Takes Ocean Cinematographer
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 7, 2012
With regret, I am adding a new name to the Wall of the Dead. Today’s New York Times reports that Mike DeGruy, a great cinematographer of the natural world, has died. We worked for National Geographic Television at about the same time, though not together. Here’s the obituary, with a last paragraph that says a lot about personal courage:
Mike deGruy, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and marine biologist who through the lens of his submersible cameras transported viewers to the deepest crags of the oceans and face to face with swirling, pulsing sea creatures, died on Saturday in a helicopter crash in Australia. He was 60.
National Geographic, for which Mr. deGruy made many television documentaries, said in a statement that he and Andrew Wight, a pilot and also a filmmaker, were killed when their Robinson R44 helicopter went down shortly after takeoff from an airstrip in Jasper’s Brush, 80 miles south of Sydney.
In more than two-dozen documentaries over three decades, Mr. deGruy (pronounced de-GREE) filmed killer whales snatching sea lion pups off the beaches of Patagonia; lobsters migrating in the Bahamas; tiger sharks feeding on albatross in Hawaii; hydrothermal vents deep in the Atlantic and the Pacific; and the diversity of cephalopods like squid, cuttlefish and octopi.
In 2002 his cinematography on “The Blue Planet: Seas of Life,” an overview of the world’s oceans and their inhabitants shown on the Discovery Channel and the BBC, won both an Emmy and an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Mr. deGruy also documented threats to the world’s coral reefs, the devastating impact of El Niño on California’s marine mammals, and the dwindling of shark populations in the Great Barrier Reef, among other projects. He was usually not only behind the camera in these films but sometimes served as host as well.
In 2005, working with James Cameron, the Academy Award-winning director of “Titanic,” Mr. deGruy supervised underwater photography for “Last Mysteries of the Titanic,” a Discovery Channel documentary series in which submersible cameras roamed the labyrinth of the ship to reveal rooms and artifacts not seen since it sank in 1912.
In a statement, Mr. Cameron called Mr. deGruy “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.”
Mr. Wight, 52, had also worked with Mr. Cameron on deep-sea expeditions from which the films “Ghosts of the Abyss,” “Aliens of the Deep” and “Expedition: Bismarck” were made. They had recently co-produced Mr. Wight’s first feature film, “Sanctum 3D.”
Michael Verloin deGruy was born in Mobile, Ala., on Dec. 29, 1951, to Frank and Katherine deGruy. He swam in the swamps of the streams emptying into Mobile Bay as a boy, was a springboard diver on his high school swim team, and took up scuba diving along the Gulf Coast. He graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in marine zoology, then moved to Hawaii and eventually became a curator at the Waikiki Aquarium. He later moved to the Marshall Islands, where he was manager of the Mid-Pacific Marine Laboratory. He also learned the complexities of underwater photography and began making documentaries.
In 1979 he moved to California and founded a production company, the Film Crew. Eight years later he met Mimi Armstrong, an associate producer of a documentary about the American Trust Territories in the Pacific. They married in 1989 and lived in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Besides his wife, Mr. deGruy is survived by his mother; a son, Maxwell; a daughter, Frances; and three brothers, Frank, Glenn and Ken.
Not all of Mr. deGruy’s filming was done with remote submersibles. He often slipped below the surface himself, camera in hand — despite the fact that on April 2, 1978, while diving in a remote area of the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands, he was attacked by a shark, and part of his right arm was torn off. After 11 operations, with only partial use of his right hand, he returned to the sea.