'Diving Deep: The Life and Times of Mike deGruy': Film Review | Santa Barbara 2019

Courtesy of Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Traveling deep, soaring high.

Underwater photographer and environmental advocate Mike deGruy, a frequent collaborator of James Cameron, is remembered in this documentary.

This year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival opened with a film boasting unmistakable local appeal, Diving Deep: The Life and Times of Mike deGruy. Mike deGruy and his wife, Mimi, were Santa Barbara residents, and many people in the opening night audience knew them personally. But the movie turns out to be more than a hometown event. It is a beautifully filmed documentary with some amazing underwater footage (much of it shot by deGruy himself), and it also succeeds as a touching personal reminiscence and as an understated but effective environmental manifesto.

DeGruy died in 2012 — ironically in a helicopter accident rather than an underwater expedition. He was in Australia preparing to embark on a film project with director James Cameron, a friend and collaborator on underseas filming, when a helicopter transporting him and another crewmember crashed. DeGruy’s wife Mimi directed the new documentary. Cameron is interviewed extensively in the movie and also provided a taped introduction to the Santa Barbara screening.

The tightly paced doc (editing by Brent Sumner) covers a good deal of ground in a swift 80 minutes. DeGruy was born in Mobile, Alabama, and grew up intrigued by the aquatic life of the bayou. His family members testify to his obsessions, though his children acknowledge that they sometimes felt secondary to his underwater work. He became an eloquent spokesman for the wonders of the deep, appearing at many conferences throughout his life. The film also acknowledges, however, that he may have possessed an excessive lust for risk and danger. On one adventure swimming with sharks, one of the creatures took a bite out of his arm that left him scarred for the rest of his life.

Diving Deep boasts remarkable footage of exotic sea creatures that deGruy discovered at the bottom of the ocean. He also became an ardent environmentalist, and several scientists interviewed in the film testify to the dangers that pollution pose to the underwater ecosystem. A turning point in deGruy’s life came with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which he photographed. The devastation to underwater coral systems haunted and depressed him, and he spoke out frequently about the deadly consequences of offshore drilling. The doc makes us understand how deeply disturbing this was to a man who always savored the wonders of the unpolluted natural world.

Mimi was a creative partner with her husband on many of his expeditions. His sudden death clearly devastated her and may account for the delay in completing this film, six years after his death. In a way, that delay has only added to Diving Deep’s pertinence and poignancy; it serves as a kind of elegy for a pristine, mysterious underwater kingdom that may never be recovered.

Director-screenwriter-producer: Mimi deGruy
Executive producers: Henry Hillman, Amber Hillman, Lynda Weinman, Bruce Heavin
Cinematographers: Mike deGruy, Paul Atkins
Editor: Brent Sumner
Music: Stephen Barber, Carl Thiel
Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival

81 minutes