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Celebration of Mike deGruy’s Life Filled with an Ocean of Heartfelt Tributes

Santa Barbara filmmaker's family and friends describe a man who 'leaned into life, daring to explore'

Filmmaker James Cameron was one of many speakers paying tribute to the late Mike deGruy on Sunday afternoon at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort. The two men were working on a new documentary when deGruy and fellow cinematographer David Wight were killed in a helicopter crash Feb. 3 in Australia. Describing deGruy’s enthusiasm for the project, Cameron said his longtime friend “was utterly in his element.”
Filmmaker James Cameron was one of many speakers paying tribute to the late Mike deGruy on Sunday afternoon at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort. The two men were working on a new documentary when deGruy and fellow cinematographer David Wight were killed in a helicopter crash Feb. 3 in Australia. Describing deGruy’s enthusiasm for the project, Cameron said his longtime friend “was utterly in his element.”  (Harry Rabin photo)

Hundreds of family members and friends gathered Sunday afternoon to say goodbye to Santa Barbara filmmaker Mike deGruy. The heartfelt tribute was infused with music and tales of his adventures around the globe.

The event was held just yards from the Pacific Ocean, a fitting place to celebrate a cinematographer who earned multiple Emmy Awards for his work capturing life under the ocean on film.

DeGruy, 60, and fellow cinematographer Andrew Wight, 51, of Melbourne, Australia, were killed in a helicopter crash Feb. 3 in New South Wales while scouting locations for a documentary project. Wight, an experienced pilot, was flying the helicopter, which crashed on takeoff and burst into flames. The cause of the crash remains under investigation.

Interfaith celebrant Saral Burdette was the first to speak Sunday at the memorial service, held in the open-air Fess Parker Rotunda at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort.

She said deGruy grew up in a loving Baptist home in Mobile, Ala.; he was deeply spiritual, but not religious. His children described him as “not a churchy kind of guy,” Burdette said, but that he “prayed and worshiped in the way he lived and loved.”

Burdette said deGruy possessed an “unedited enthusiasm” for the world.

“He did not hold back,” she said. “He leaned into life, daring to explore and adventure, to learn and to love.”

Friend Paul Atkins also shared, recalling a time when the pair was working on a film about Jellyfish Lake on the island of Palau.

They were going out for a night dive, despite rumors that a marine crocodile lived in the lake, and the pair got lost on the way. Each certain about which route to take, the pair split up, Atkins recalled.

“We ended up back at our campsite,” he laughed.

Atkins encouraged those in the audience to follow their instincts throughout life.

“That’s what Mike was all about,” he said.

“He made me a more complete person ... A spirit that shone as brightly as his can not disappear.”

Roger Durling, executive director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, also spoke about meeting deGruy 15 years ago when Durling owned a cafe in Summerland. Durling said deGruy would come into the shop for coffee and would talk with him about film, encouraging him to take charge of the festival. Using his Hollywood connections, deGruy eventually roped in filmmakers James Cameron and Sir David Attenborough to participate in the festival.

Cameron, who also spoke Sunday, was working with deGruy on a series at the time of the crash and said he had been brimming with ideas during the shoot.

“He was utterly in his element,” he said.

Cameron pointed to a large, black and white photo of deGruy examining a chambered nautilus.

“The world for him was full of wonder,” he said.

In 2005, Cameron and deGruy worked together to film Last Mysteries of the Titanic, for which deGruy was the underwater director of photography.

“I was so heartsick,” he said when he was informed of the helicopter crash.

He said crew members, often one at a time, came to him to express their desire for the shoot to continue — for the sake of deGruy and Wight.

With the blessings of deGruy’s and Wight’s families, Cameron said he’ll continue to produce the film. He passed on the condolences from the crew of the ship.

“We should take comfort that he lived so vibrantly,” he told the guests.

Mimi deGruy, his wife of 26 years, and their two teenage children, Max and Frances, were also at the memorial.

Burdette read a letter Mimi deGruy had penned for her husband, spanning the life they shared together, beginning with their meeting in American Samoa.

“By the hand, you led me all over the world,” she said.

Of their children, “you delighted in everything they did,” she wrote.

As she closed the letter, she asked family friend Kimberly Ford to sing “La Mer (Beyond the Sea)” as a tribute.

“This one is for you,” she wrote to her husband.

Frances also shared a letter she had written for her father. She recalled times sitting by the fireplace in the family’s Montecito home with her dad, talking about the oceans and watching movies together.

DeGruy’s brother, Frank, also spoke. One of four children, deGruy recalled his brother’s courage growing up.

He pinpointed his brother’s start of a courageous life to when he decided to try new dives off of the divingboard at their neighborhood pool as a 9-year-old.

“He began acting in the face of fear and his life was greatly enlarged,” he said. “Mike wasn’t here just to entertain us .... He left the world a better place.”

Memorial contributions can be made to Santa Barbara Middle School, Heal the Ocean or Mobile Baykeeper in his native Alabama.

Click here for a Mike deGruy board on Noozhawk’s Pinterest site.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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