With the deep blue sea, bobbing boats, and weekend waterfront bustle in the background, hundreds of people from near and far gathered in the Fess Parker Doubletree Rotunda on Sunday afternoon to pay tribute to Mike DeGruy, the award-winning filmmaker, globe-trotting adventurer, and beloved community member who died on February 4 in a helicopter accident in Australia. The 60-year-old was killed alongside his friend and colleague Andrew Wight doing exactly what they loved: working on yet another ambitious underwater film project, this time a 3-D submarine series by legendary director James Cameron, who was in attendance on Sunday and spoke of DeGruy as a man who lived life to the fullest.
Indeed, that was the continual and redeeming message of the service, which was orchestrated by minister Saral Burdette, who opened by explaining that DeGruy was “married to amazement.” One organizer said that more than 1,000 people were in the crowd, which was easy to believe, as all the seats were taken and dozens upon dozens were left standing around the ring of the rotunda. Photographs of DeGruy on his various explorations surrounded the scene, as well as pictures of him with his wife, Mimi, his son, Max, and his daughter, Frances.
Burdette’s remarks were followed by a longtime friend of DeGruy’s from his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, who met Mike in Hawaii and became his closest filmmaking buddy; the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Roger Durling, who said that DeGruy was the one who encouraged him to take over as executive director of the fest; Cameron, the director, who explained that he would not feel any regret for inviting DeGruy to take on this latest assignment, as he was the obvious choice as perhaps the best underwater cameraman in the business; DeGruy’s daughter Frances, who bravely read a heartfelt letter to her father that she wrote just days ago; and DeGruy’s older brother, who explained that Mike was the most celebrated member his siblings and the one who made the family exciting. All offered the sentiment that DeGruy’s joyous, friendly, and enthusiastic spirit continues to live on, and encouraged those in attendance to go forth and carry out his mission of teaching the younger generations and protecting the ocean.
Songs preceded and followed the service, including sing-alongs to “Octopus’s Garden” and “This Little Light of Mine,” and there was a healthy mix of tears, laughs, and smiles. One speaker referred to DeGruy — whose mop of thick white hair was particularly wild — as a “human exclamation point,” and as his family gathered near the shore in a smaller ceremony to honor his life, an exclamation-like cloud formed in the skies over the Mesa, visible to all heading home in that direction. Whether it was a message from Mike will never be known, but what’s certain is that everyone who came to pay their respects on Sunday left knowing that DeGruy had lived more in his 60 years than most people could do in a century, and all were inspired to more consciously do the same with our own remaining years on the planet.