This site will not function as intended with JavaScript disabled!

As a highly successful filmmaker for over 25 years, Mike DeGruy has had his ups and downs. He’s won dozens of awards both domestically and abroad and his work has appeared everywhere, BBC, PBS, TBS and National Geographic Television. But, along the way he’s spent a few nights in Heartbreak Hotel.

The Most Boundlessly Enthusiastic Person in Diving

Early in his career, deGruy was viciously attacked by a shark and narrowly escaped death. He’s lost over a half a million dollars worth of filming equipment due to circumstances beyond his control in the field. And he’s even had his support ship sink out from under him into 2,000 feet of water. Yet, like a true pro Mike has always come back with the footage. From his dramatic images of orcas snatching sea lion pups from the beach to his elaborately detailed studio sets, deGruy’s career has taken him to the world’s most remote and spectacular locations. Although a bit “vertically challenged”, at about five and a half feet in height, Mike is also perhaps the most boundlessly enthusiastic person in diving. Whether onstage narrating a film segment or appearing in his numerous documentary productions, there is no mistaking when he makes his appearance. Audiences are snapped to attention. Children crane their necks to get a better view. Even dogs and cats strain to figure out what all the ruckus is about. The man is like a Tasmanian Devil on speed. And once he get’s going… well, it’s best to just get out of the way.

We met in February 1996 while we were both working on a National Geographic Explorer documentary on humpback whales out on the Silver Bank, north of the Dominican Republic. He was the Director of Photography and I was the designated “whale expert” whose mission was to shepherd host Boyd Matson into camera frame with the leviathans and, hopefully, bring him back alive. I also had to train all the film crew to dive on rebreathers, a product that was new to most divers at the time. We’ve been close friends ever since. Our trip started out steeped in humor and only got funnier.

When he boarded the expedition vessel at 5:00 AM that morning, I had already placed him under “fashion arrest” for carrying more that 50 lbs. of hair care products in his luggage. Boyd has hosted the National Geographic Explorer series for about a year now and he’s got to be one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He kind of looks like a Nordic cross between Robert Redford and Huck Finn with a tousled head of blond hair right out of the J. Crew catalog. For a balding guy like me, it was disgusting.

But seasickness had Boyd’s full attention. Right now he was wiping the fruits of his last “heave ho” out of that million-dollar hairdo and working on his best thousand yard stare while silently praying that the damn boat would stop rocking. Lined up next to him in whiteknuckled angst were producer Claire Van dePolder and sound technician Eddy O’Connor. Both were engaged in spirited Technicolor projectile vomiting. As Mike and I turned away giggling inanely, Eddy flashed me a look that said, “Who do I have to screw to get out of this movie?”

Yeah, we were off to a good start. And before you could say “Sasoon Herbal Cream Conditioner”, Boyd and his cosmetics were on the way to the whale petting zoo. All kidding aside, Boyd’s got a pretty tough job. He basically has to learn a new extreme sport every week and try to look good doing it. The week before he had been traveling by dog sled in mid-winter blizzards in Minnesota and then was shipped off to be hurled off some high altitude mountain peak to bring back some gut-wrenching hang gliding footage.

Gut-Wrenching Footage

So I guess, we should have cut him some slack when he showed up to learn to dive with rebreathers… and 60 ton whales… in the open ocean… in one day. But, of course, we didn’t. Mike, being a professional diver, got used to rebreathers in a heartbeat. Boyd’s learning curve was a bit steeper. Think of looking back on Everest’s north face route and that might put it in perspective. But sort of like an eager golden retriever, Boyd would try anything and keep going at it until he almost got it right. I swear I contemplated tossing a Frisbee off the stern of the boat once just to see if he would fetch it.” When I launched Fathoms magazine in 2001, I asked Mike to be our first interview subject. He agreed, “As long as we don’t have to discuss that hot tub incident at your house during the snowstorm.” In the dialogue that followed, Mike spoke frankly about his life, filmmaking, and what it’s like to take a deep submersible into the ocean’s depths. His encounter with my treacherous hot tub remains forever sealed.

Just Went for It

Mike, we’ve found out that you’re originally from Mobile, Alabama. How did a Southerner make it in the California film scene?»

Hmmm… That’s a bit strong. Certainly I have not made it in Hollywood. I may have lucked into a few dollars and filmmaking opportunities in my little natural history documentary world, but after 20 years, who wouldn’t? Mobile was important to what I do today. I grew up, on and in the water in the many rivers around Mobile Bay and the Gulf. I had a mad obsession of flying and since I couldn’t afford a plane, I bought a regulator. It’s the same thing really, only you’re flying underwater, and much cheaper. School and the urge to see and study coral reefs took me away from the South and to Hawaii. I never left the Pacific. Kidding aside, how’d you get started in filmmaking and not, say, lumberjacking?»Let’s get something straight here: kidding is never an aside.

Okay, here’s the brief scoop: while I was a lowly grad student at the University of Hawaii, thinking I was headed for a career in Marine Biology, fighting my friends for tenure at some plum spot in the tropics, teaching Zoo 101 the rest of my life, I met a madman who sent me, Bruce Carlson (current Director of the Waikiki Aquarium) and Paul and Gracie Atkins (who took the same career path as me) to Palau to collect live chambered nautilus (my research animal at UH). At the last minute he threw a couple of old Arriflex S cameras at us and said, “Make a movie of this.”

So we did. It had to be the worst piece of crap you’d ever seen, but it was a blast to do and upon returning I immediately dropped out of school and started making films. I never told anybody I didn’t know what I was doing, so I kept getting hired. I have to say, however, that splitting logs was a close second.

Shark Attack

How long were you in the Marshall Islands?»I lived in the Marshalls for three years as the resident manager of a marine lab. This was a wild period of my life. I took a year off from school for the job and after three years made that trip to Palau and, well, never returned to UH. I was in my mid-20s, had free run of a spectacular atoll, managed about 10 boats, had full diving facilities and dove my butt off in some of the most spectacular waters and reefs I have ever seen. Never mind that little shark thing.

Speaking of that, what’s it like having a reef shark chewing on your arm like it was a chicken wing?»Grey Reef sharks just have no sense of humor. What’s it like? What the hell do you think it was like? Well, that’s not entirely fair since you have experienced a shark attack first hand as well. You know, between the two of us and friends like Al Giddings, Rodney Fox, Jimmy Stewart… we ought to start our own club for shark survivors. That would be a neat little fraternity. But back to my own personal little Jaws incident. I innocently took a picture of a shark that was some 20 feet away, admittedly it was in a threat posture, but jeez… and the little five footer shot right in and ripped off the top of my arm! I couldn’t believe it! At first everything was happening in super slow motion and I watched with unbelieving eyes. The shark’s head approached, brushed my camera aside, and at the very last nanosecond, opened its mouth and engulfed my right forearm. After the mouth closed and it began shaking like some rabid dog, things sped up really fast and I was being jerked around like a rag in a mad dog’s mouth. It ripped off the top of my arm, did a loop, and attacked again from below. As I futilely kicked at it, thinking “aloha world,” it grabbed my fin rather than my lower thigh, again shook like a paint shaker and tore out a semi-circle of rubber. This, apparently it didn’t like, as it spat it out and went after Phil Light, my diving partner. I’d never imagined I would be happy to see someone attacked by a shark, but I sure was then! Phil was cut, but okay.

After the Marshall Islands, what direction did your career take?»The Marshalls were literally a lifechanging experience. Almost from life to death, in fact. I officially wrote off school and the career that a Ph.D. would have given me. I left everything I had trained for (Marine Biology) entirely. This was a tad intimidating, but must speak volumes about how much I loved that collecting/filming trip to Palau. Paul Atkins and I both quit graduate school and along with his now wife, Gracie, managed to twice return to Palau and finish the film we started on the chambered nautilus. We sold it to PBS and the BBC and never turned back. I became a freelance cameraman for the BBC working extensively on major series like Trials of Life, The Living Planet, Life in the Freezer, and began producing my own films shortly thereafter. I got hired by this foxy little lass at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta for a shoot in Samoa and ended up marrying her. Mimi and I now produce a film about every three years.

What are your current projects and where will they be taking you?»I am travelling to Punta Norte in Patagonia to film killer whales literally rushing out of the water to grab hapless sea lion pups from the dry beach. I filmed this some eight years ago for The Trials of Life and have to say I still get a lot of comments about that sequence. Of all the natural history phenomenon I have filmed, or even witnessed, this has to be right at the top. When you are laying in the surf zone, wearing a wetsuit and a camera and 40-ft. whales are screaming out of the water right next to you, grabbing scurrying sea lions and violently slapping them back and forth, ripping them apart, then returning to sea where they flip them 30 feet into the air with their tails… well, this has a lasting memory. So I return, this time with a 35mm movie camera for an upcoming feature film on whales. Wish me luck.

Going into the Deep

When and how did you get started filming from deep submarines?»Maui Divers is a jewelry manufacturer in Hawaii, who uses exotic corals as stones. To acquire these precious corals, they owned and operated a little submarine, the Star II. I was a diver helping launch and recover the sub and had several opportunities to dive in it as well. I had experienced nothing like this before. At 1,200 feet in Hawaii’s beautiful blue Pacific, there was a dim moonlight glow over the bottom. Surrounding us were huge bushy gold coral trees that sparkled like Christmas decorations with their bioluminescence. Then there were the bamboo corals – as you might imagine from the name, these spectacular creatures had a skeleton beginning at the bottom of about an inch thick. But what most impressed me was their bioluminescence. If you gently nudged these corals with the sub, a ring of blue-green light appeared at their base and traveled right up the stalk, took the 90 degree turn and spiraled its way off the tip. Spectacular! This was the seed that took 20 years to germinate.

Four years ago I got a call from the BBC, who were producing a film for The Discovery Channel on a search for the giant squid. They told me they were taking a one-man sub to New Zealand to try to film a giant squid, and was I interested in going to Kaikura for a month, learning how to drive the sub and be the pilot/photographer! At this point I just have to ask… is this a great job or what?! Anyway, I said I didn’t know, I’d check my schedule and get back to them in a month. Right. Needless to say, I signed on and that turned out to be a defining moment for me. I am totally and completely hooked on small submersibles and expect the rest of my life to revolve around them.

What’s the deepest stuff you’ve filmed?»The deepest stuff I have filmed is off Panama, on the midocean ridge. These dives were just over 10,000 feet and I did four or five of them from the Woods Hole sub, Alvin. We were diving on the hot vents, characterized by extraordinary black smokers, towering underwater volcanoes violently belching what looks everything in the world like thick black smoke from a 1950 steel mill stack gone bad. It is a place of extremes.

Extreme and Extraordinary

Extreme conditions, needless to say, as there is no light, great pressure, you do the math (some 4,500 psi), and near Q+A » freezing conditions. Not to mention very little oxygen. But the greatest extreme has to be the contrasts. The vents are dispersed along the East Pacific Rise, part of the submarine mountain range encircling the earth. It is now generally agreed that these rift zones produce the earth we now drive and grow tomatoes on. Anyway, the hot spots are ephemeral and seem to have about a 20- year life span, then they quit spewing – like terrestrial volcanoes, just a different time scale. As you cruise along the bottom, your porthole reveals lava. Huge fields of black lava which looks exactly like the lava fields in Hawaii. Nothing seems to live there, just bleak, stark basalt with the occasional rattail, sea cucumber or bizarrofish oozing by. Then you start seeing tiny white specks on the bottom. These specks increase in number and soon you recognize them as crabs and funny looking lobster. Within 30 feet from starkness, you hear a “Holy shit, there it is!” from the pilot (he has the best view) and out of your little window emerges an entire community of creatures thriving on the noxious gases and chemicals super heated by the earth’s molten core. Masses of tube worms, 12-feet long, pure white with brilliant red plumes hide many species of fish, gastropods, other types of worms, crustaceans of all sizes and shapes and perhaps my favorite, octopus like you’ve never seen before. What a place that is. Perhaps what made it so special was the equipment I was using on the Alvin. Woods Hole has invested a substantial amount of money toward superb imaging and we rigged the sub with high definition camera systems. We saw details of this unique community that had never been seen before.

What’s the most interesting subject you’ve filmed?»That’s a tough one. So many elements are involved in making a place interesting, the animals, the conditions, the physical elements… But as far as subjects go, I have to say that the phenomenon I am about to embark on again has to be right up there. In Patagonia, a group of killer whales have cued in on the “fledging” of a population of sea lion pups, which are just learning to swim. I was there with Paul Atkins, who was also filming the event and perhaps the busiest Assistant Cameraman known to man, Keith Turner. Keith was loading magazines for the both of us, and running roll after roll of film at 150 frames/second kept the poor guy mighty busy. Several things impressed me about this extraordinary phenomenon; the whales were not there except for the two weeks when the pups dared to enter the water, then they showed up right on cue. How did they know the pups were ringing that dinner bell? The same whales return year after year, at exactly the right time, so they must be cueing in on something – certainly not the calendar. Then the behavior itself is amazing, if not downright morbid. The big males hunt individually, while the smaller females hunt in an organized pack. There is a break in the reef about 100-feet wide and even at this break the whales can only make it over at high tide. So they wait, as did I. At high tide, when the pups foolishly enter this “dead zone,” they are history – better frame up your shot and start rolling because the black and white freight train is coming through. Their speed and inertia bring them literally out of the water and up onto the beach, where they grab an unsuspecting pup. With a violent shaking of their head and bodies they slam the little sea lion time and time again against the beach while they work their hulk back into the water. But it doesn’t end there. They take the pups out to sea and release them offshore. This is the morbid part – they breach on top of them, take them in their mouths and sling them 30- to-40 yards across the water and swim beneath them and flip them 50 feet into the air with their tails. The pups are still alive during this punishment, which may go on for 10-to-15 minutes. Then the telltale blood arrives at the surface and it’s over. This cycle repeats itself for over a week.

How did you make the National Geographic connection?»In 1989, my lovely bride and I produced a film on sharks called Sharks on Their Best Behavior for the Hawaiian PBS station, KHET. About a year into the three-year project, Geographic bought into it and I have worked on and off with them ever since. Weren’t you competing against Boyd Matson for that hosting spot?»How embarrassing. I’d hardly saying I was competing with Boyd, because he clearly is perfect for that Explorer position and obviously I was no competition as they chose him, but I did audition. We were considering moving to Annapolis, Maryland at the time and the Explorer spot seemed a reasonable idea. Fortunately, I came to my senses and moved to Santa Barbara instead, a city that I love living in.

After they picked him over you, didn’t you ended up shooting him repeatedly – photographically that is?»Yeah, for a while I was shooting quite a few of the openings and links for Explorer. That was back in the days when they were still using film and we had an absolute blast travelling all over the world doing threeminute pieces. Then they went to video and after one of those video jobs I never heard from them again! I guess that speaks for itself… I still shoot film.

Besides yourself, who are your favorite underwater filmmakers?»I can’t possibly answer that. This is such a small world and everybody knows each other and to single out one of two without naming the whole lot would be, well, I just can’t do that. I can say this, however, as far as watching programs in an auditorium setting and listening to the filmmaker narrate their footage, I have never heard anyone come close to Stan Waterman. That man is elegant, funny and totally entertaining. I also have to mention Peter Scoones. Now here is a cowboy. He’s got to be in his mid 60s by now, still diving 300 days a year, builds all his own housings, takes Sony’s $70,000 cameras and turns them into a stream of screws, circuit boards and glass on his bench, reconstructs them inside a slick little bit of metal he turned on his lathe, designs his own ports and optics, installs that and goes out and shoots the most beautiful pictures you can imagine with these contraptions that are truly one-of-a-kind. Although I did catch him once with an off-the-shelf still housing.

Early in my career, a filmmaker once told me that shooting pictures is all about light but isn’t it really all about money?»Sure, it’s all about light and exposure if you don’t want to eat, take lovely cruises through Greece, drink nice wine and live where you want. Seriously though, in this business, especially today with the explosion of extremely inexpensive video cameras that produce “broadcast” images, there are a hundred people out there making films where 10 years ago there were two. So the competition for an hour of broadcast time has skyrocketed, which, in general, I think is good. This proliferation of filmmakers, especially the younger ones, adds an edge to the programs that the older gang just does not. Having said that, I personally think there has also been a proliferation of crap being broadcast and this is, in large part, is directly related to the budgets these new filmmakers agree to make programs for. A typical high-end natural history film, like a BBC or National Geographic special, has a budget of around a million bucks. So here you have a new cable channel offering $100-150 thousand for an hour film and there are 50 people standing in line for that slot! At one-tenth of the budget, what do you think you get for the product? Yeah, it is about the light, but certainly the money helps.

Filmmaking Gear

Let’s talk about filmmaking gear. There’s been a lot of buzz about High Definition camera systems. Are you using them? What do you think the next big breakthrough will be?»In a nutshell, I am still a firm believer in the image that film delivers over anything I have seen in video. However, I now have serious conditions to that statement that I did not have five years ago. Video is making huge strides toward looking at life the way humans see it. I think this has as much to do with the myriad customizing capabilities on the new cameras as it does with the vastly improved image quality itself. My biggest complaint with video has been its poor ability to handle contrast ratios – shooting in the tropics with harsh sunlit subjects with dark shadows and heaps of bright highlights has always produced a video image that looks like crap to me – blocked up shadows and blown out skies, etc. Film has trouble with these harsh subjects as well, but does a far better job than video.

However, you put yourself at 150 feet in the murky Galapagos, at four in the afternoon, and a different picture emerges, pun intended. This is the world, low light, low contrast situations where I think I’d rather have a nice video camera over my trusty Arri. In the last two years I have been using High Definition video and have learned to love it in some situations. Still, on that beach in Rangiaroa, give me my Arriflex. But low contrasty situations underwater, especially at thousands of feet where I have been working with it lately, high def is the only way to go. swear, when I first saw Billy Lang’s camera system at the hot vents, the jumbo octopus, screaming black smokers and masses of vibrant tube worms, for the first time I felt the technology had been removed from the television system. I saw little or no difference from my high def monitor to my view out the porthole. It was astonishing and I’d never felt that emotion delivered from video before. Then it grew better and better as I was able to fill the frame with fingernailsized creatures and see them in far greater detail than they have been seen in before, not to mention from out of a little porthole.

The major drawbacks of this new technology are that it is inherently complicated and expensive to use and maintain. And in many ways it is old technology polished up. By this I mean the cameras are still plastic things with funky viewfinders, they are large, heavy and still fragile and susceptible to environmental elements. I’d like to see them beefed up physically, sealed better and feel more like their price. Then there are the recorders. A high def camcorder is about $90,000 and a good studio deck costs more than that. Why do we still have to record on such electronically and mechanically sophisticated machines, not to mention large and heavy and finicky? I anxiously wait for the “chip” recorders that have to be in the near future. Even with the proliferation of cable and satellite channels is there consistently enough market for well-produced, high-end documentaries?»In a word, no. Not in the natural history genre that I tend to dwell in anyway. I remember clearly when the cable explosion began, a lot of people began rubbing their hands together thinking there would be heaps more work to go around. In a sense they were right, but one minor detail slipped off the radar screen. There were heaps of new outlets all right, but the pot of money stayed the same. So what happened is that the budgets began to shrink across the board because to fill all the new slots, broadcasters began to put more money into quantity rather than quality. For a while this had little effect on the people who were producing the high end “blue chip” films as there were still the same outlets for those, but the economics of those programs, which take a long time to make and therefore are expensive, began to make less and less sense to the funders. They have a hard time getting their money back, as the various outlets they sold to internationally, became cheaper and cheaper as well.

Since camera gear is obviously foremost on your list of necessities, what about the support equipment you need to wear while you dive to get you in position for your shots? What type of scuba system do you employ? Are you into rebreathers? Nitrox? Inflatable doll lift bags?»We spend long stretches in the field, so inflatable dolls are a necessity, of course. And they better be good looking! As for dive gear, it varies greatly according to the shoot. About six years ago we bought three rebreathers, the Biomarine CCR500s. I think Al Giddings took delivery of the first two and I got the next three. I don’t know Al’s experiences, but mine was less than pleasant. I sent them back three years ago for changes and upgrades and one came back a year later and I have never seen the other two again. After literally a hundred calls and faxes I can only speculate on what happened to them. Anyway, before the manufacturer stole them, we used them very effectively on a film shot extensively in the California kelp forests. What they brought to us above all else was time underwater.

I tend to light extensively, but well away from the camera, creating strong back and highlights, but try to be subtle enough to make the lighting invisible. To accomplish this, I may use up to 10, 1200 watt HMIs and a couple larger and a few smaller ones. This scheme can be maddening when you are diving in kelp, as you might imagine, considering these are all AC lights with cables to the support boat. The rebreathers gave us four hours at 60 feet to set up all this, with no decompression required. No bubbles are nice and the air is warm but the time is what I liked best. Anything that gives you more time, whether it is a good drysuit, nitrox or rebreathers get my vote. When you are paying for a boat, full crew and there is something great happening beneath you, an hour underwater just doesn’t cut it.

“Black Cloud deGruy”

Al Giddings once told me he refers to you as “Black Cloud deGruy,” a thinly veiled reference to the misfortunes that have sometimes accompanied your work. In addition to having survived a shark attack, tell us about the time you had the unique experience of watching your own support vessel sink in front of your eyes in Palau.»Thanks Al, I really needed that. I seem to have lost three Arriflex SR’s, three underwater housings for them, two full stills packages and then there was that pesky little boat thing. What do they say? “Shit happens?” Maybe the reputation is deserved, but I feel pretty good about some of the stuff we’ve pulled off, and if a little gear goes here and there, well that’s better than lives! I’ve been diving in subs a lot recently and I remember a funny feeling I got in New Zealand while about 1,000 feet down in the one-man sub, Deep Rover. I wondered how I’d get out of the thing if, on my way back to the surface during inclement weather, I saw our boat on its way down. Maybe it was the Palau experience that put that thought in my head. We were shooting for a film on cephalopods called Incredible Suckers. That was a name I gave it as a joke about the guys who funded the project, and somehow it stuck. I had studied the chambered nautilus, captured many with traps, but never had seen them in situ. So we rented a ROV from Harbor Branch and flew it to Palau with a tech and pilot named Jerry Neeley. As often happens, on the very last day of filming: Viola! Nautilus! We were nailing the sequence, shooting them against the vertical reef at 900 feet and I was in the control room of the 40-ft. boat we chartered screaming with delight. Then Peck Euwer, my assistant cameraman, stuck his head in the door and said, “Hey Mike, there’s a lot of water on the back deck.” “Water??!” I jumped up and to my horror saw scuba tanks and diving gear sloshing around on the afterdeck. I pulled open the cover to the engine room and it was half full. The captain yelled to “Lose the ROV” and I went into the cabin and told Jerry. He was calmly filming away with the ROV and said, “Okay.” So we disconnected the ROV and threw the cable overboard. Within 10 minutes the boat was resting at her new home at 1,000 feet. Dang. Never knew why.

Multi-talented Mike deGruy

In addition to your reputation as a cameraman and director, you’re also widely sought after as a commentator and color man in underwater documentaries. In fact, in 1999’s Discovery Channel live broadcast from Bikini Atoll during Shark Week, you actually stole the spotlight from Giddings. What’s it like to have to work with the pressure of live TV with millions in the international viewing audience?»When you Q+A n are live, there is an intimidation factor that I have felt in no other situation. The moment you screw up, the world sees it, so there is obviously an edge. The first time I did a live broadcast, I was the host and we were in the Red Sea broadcasting from a ship. I was talking to Martha Holmes from the BBC while she was 40 feet down and wearing a bobble helmet. Ten minutes into the 30-minute broadcast, she surfaced with a helmet half full of water; there goes the show! So I get this stuttering whisper in my ear, …”Mike… uh.. cover for a bit while we sort this one….” Cover! Hell, I had never done anything like this in my life and suddenly everyone was looking at me, all cameras on me and all I could think of was… nothing! I yabbered on a bit and thank God Eugenie Clark was there to talk to.

You’re living in Santa Barbara with an interesting collection of dive pros. How do you like this compared to your old digs in LA?»Santa Barbara is great. Bev and Connie Morgan and the DSI gang are there, Bob Kirby, and a lot of stills and filmmaker types. It really is hot spot for diving innovation and filmmaking. Brooks Institute is there, the Marine Tech Dept. at City College is fantastic, UCSB has a great diving program and now we’re getting a pretty good influx of Hollywood. It is a beautiful city with fantastic support for diving. We have the Santa Barbara Channel which is brimming with cetaceans, pinnipeds, kelp forests, then there are the Channel Islands offshore where I swear, when the conditions are right, is the most beautiful diving I have ever done. I love that place. I know quite a few people working over there and am impressed with some of their programs, especially the educational elements they bring to ours and other communities. Finally, at a whopping five-foot-seven-inches tall, tell us once and for all, does size really matter?»Nope.