As an avid diver, scientist, and film buff, I’m a sucker for documentaries about the ocean. All life on Earth as we know it may have arisen there, synthesizing energy from the chemicals around black smoker vents, well before it learned how to take energy from the sun. The ocean continues to teem with exotic creatures big and small, and it remains a barely-explored frontier. It is as close to being on another planet as we can get, and the stories it can tell us about evolution and adaptation are invaluable. Besides all that, it a vast source of wonder — one accessible to vast swaths of humanity. And we are destroying it faster than we can learn its secrets.
This was the passion and life’s work of Mike DeGruy. If you don’t know who he is, you owe it to yourself to find out. Fortunately, there’s a great way to start: Diving Deep: The Life and Times of Mike DeGruy, a documentary about his life directed and produced by his wife, Mimi DeGruy. In short, Mike was an explorer, educator, and filmmaker who traveled the world seeking out and telling amazing stories about the ocean. Tragically, he passed away in in a helicopter on a shoot for James Cameron and his Deepsea Challenge in 2012.
“Diving Deep is a fascinating look at the wonders of the ocean, and the passion and character of a man who died trying to educate us all.”
You might have seen Mike hosting shows on Shark Week, or countless other nature documentaries. But even if you haven’t seen him in front of the camera, you’ve seen his beautiful underwater cinematography on shows like Planet Earth or Blue Planet. Thanks to his keen eye, deep experience, and fearlessness, he’s been able to capture some truly legendary shots in extreme conditions, such as lava going into the ocean off Hawaii, black smokers, under-ice photography, giant squids, and orcas making runs at the beach to gobble up seals. Some of these moments had never been captured before, and are so profound they’ve been used not just for entertainment, but for basic research. Sometimes he went too far, like when he was attacked by a shark while filming. But he got right back in the water, learned from his mistakes, and even later confronted the very same shark with better gear.
Diving Deep has a personal angle too, as his wife Mimi narrates and talks about their life together and the tragedy of losing her husband. His kids show up too, and through interviews with them and Mike’s friends we get a sense of what kind of a person he was when the camera wasn’t on — Passionate, driven, fearless, but sometimes stubborn too.
One of the catalysts for the film is that Mike, having grown up in Mobile Alabama, was mad as hell at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Shortly before he died he had set out to make a documentary about its devastating impacts on the Gulf of Mexico, particularly the large scale use of surfactants to disperse the oil, despite their effects on the ocean ecosystem being largely untested. Some of that footage is shown here, and his rage, in such stark contrast to his sense of passion and wonder, is powerful. How can the oil industry spend billions and billions of dollars destroying the ocean, while at the same time we have so little money for research? Our priorities, he argued, were completely out of whack. Though Mike died in 2012, this message is as timely as when he filmed it.
“…he’s been able to capture some truly legendary shots in extreme conditions…”
Not everything about the doc is perfect. The sound mix was a bit too loud over the opening montage. The underwater footage, and the stories about Mike’s passion and expertise from his fellow filmmakers is riveting, but some of the family stuff drags a bit. They also unnecessarily contrast money for ocean research with money for space research (we need to fund both, not fight each other over funding). Still, there is time for these things to be tweaked before the film gets seen by a larger audience. Overall, Diving Deep is a fascinating look at the wonders of the ocean, and the passion and character of a man who died trying to educate us all.
Like Anthony Bourdain, and Steve Irwin, there’s something especially tragic about the loss of an explorer out on a mission to teach us. They seem so much larger than life, so expert, that we start to think of them as practically invulnerable. Diving Deep reminds us that we’ve all got.a limited time on this limitless Earth. Let’s use it as Mike would have: living passionately, helping those who need it, and fighting injustice where we find it.
Diving Deep: The Life and Times of Mike DeGruy (2019) Directed by Mimi DeGruy. Featuring Mike DeGruy. Diving Deep was the opening night film at the 2019 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
8 out of 10