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Portraits of the Central Coast Blog

Mike and Mimi DeGruy

Mike and Mimi DeGruy


Mike and Mimi DeGruy, portrait by Holli Harmon

The Golden Ratio

The tides are in our veins. –Robinson Jeffers

“Do what you love and you will become good at it,” Mike was known to say.

His passion for the ocean took him from the Gulf Shores of his childhood home to ultimately explore the world's oceans and record what he saw on film. With a career as a marine biologist and curator of invertebrates already established, Mike went on to become an acclaimed documentary filmmaker. Two decades ago, while working in Hawaii, he was asked to work on a film project on the American Trust Territories, where he met Mimi.


Mimi's path led her from Pennsylvania to study at Yale for a career in art conservation; her passions turned to working in television news and producing documentaries for CNN. In preparing for a documentary on marine life she traveled to Hawaii to meet the film crew. “She hired me,” Mike says.

Documentary Film

Mike and Mimi DeGruy are celebrities in the world of documentary film. Their combined passion for telling stories about the wonders of the ocean led to two decades of filming around the globe together. Fed by Mike's earliest passion for the ocean – he studied marine zoology at North Carolina and at the University of Hawaii – they made award-winning films for PBS, BBC, and National Geographic, to name just a few. Mike’s scientific background and early career included studying cephalopods and working as a manager of the Mid-Pacific Marine Lab and as curator of invertebrates at the Waikiki Aquarium.

Mike brought a biologist’s perspective to filming the behavior of marine animals. Mimi brought a storyteller’s perspective. She had an eye for the details that would captivate a popular audience. “Part of the magic of us working together is that we bring different disciplines to the table,” Mike reflects.

He observes, “When I first started filming [thirty years ago] there were few people working in this area [of underwater films]. Everyone knew one another. We would clean up beaches to make it look good. In reality we were creating an artful reality because we cleaned up the trash. In the last five, six, seven years, I have wanted to show the oceans as they are, with all of their warts. We have acidification, plastics, declining fisheries.”

The nautilus, the subject of Mike’s early research, is an apt metaphor for the fragility of the ocean. The repetitive spiral pattern of the nautilus is found in many examples in nature. In painting the portrait of the DeGruys, Holli incorporates the nautilus; sometimes used to illustrate the design perspective known as the Golden Ratio. It is similar to the Fibonacci equation, which is based on a series on integers often represented as an expanding spiral.

Like the spiral of the nautilus, Mike and Mimi’s influence has grown over the years, always connecting back with that awareness of the fragility of the ocean.


Mike and Mimi’s great passions have extended from inspiring wonder about the world’s oceans to educating audiences about our impact on the planet. Their recent films have linked the ocean sciences with how we live, illuminating our impact on the environment.

With the birth of their children, Max and Frances, now 20 and 16, their passion also extended to family life and the life of their community. Mimi is a great force as a nurturer in the community. She reflects, “One of my passions about living here is that it is a vibrant community dedicated to building a stronger and better community. I'm passionate about that for myself and my kids.”

Living on the central coast, many of us are familiar with the ocean’s daily and seasonal rhythms. Mimi observes, “[We need to] start looking at ourselves as part of the ecosystem. Without that sensitivity we trash it.”

Mike felt that the experience of a place, and particularly of his time in Hawaii, was enhanced by its mythologies, by its stories. They chose to raise their family in Santa Barbara. Not only is Santa Barbara a part of the spectacular Santa Barbara Channel, home to one of the world’s most diverse populations of marine life, but it is also home to a community that cares passionately about the needs of neighbors, with a thousand non-profit organizations serving the needs of everyone from children to elders, and fostering environmental awareness.

Mike and Mimi are highly aware of our impact on the oceans and patterns of consumption. “In general, people need to lighten their step. Live more simply.  Plant edible gardens.  People become overwhelmed, [they think] what can I do?” notes Mimi.

Mike reflects, “We need to rethink our relationship with the earth. We have the capacity to change the earth and that can be good or bad. We need a paradigm shift in the way we think about the earth. Go to a farmer's market. Take advantage of what's local. Start at home. Take a cloth bag [instead of plastic]. Maybe it's a good thing to think about reusing. If you can't reuse, recycle.”

After their children were born, Mimi spent more time at home and became involved in her children’s education. She observes, “As parents, [we have] our foremost opportunity to influence the world. I see people so hyper-competitive about what their kids should be. Allow them to find what they love.”

Mike says, “The idea [is] that you find what you enjoy, you get good at it;

it has value.” Mike gave countless talks to audiences of schoolchildren over the years. “When I talk with schools, with kids, I tell them, ‘Just start making films.’”

In watching the brief interview clip, it is immediately apparent that Mike and Mimi are devoted to one another, to their family, and to their community. Not long after this interview took place, in 2012, Mike DeGruy died in a helicopter crash, while working on a film in Australia.   His extraordinary life was honored by friends, as well as colleagues who became friends from, every corner of the world.

Mike and Mimi discovered ways to work together, with each bringing their own perspectives and skills to every project. Likewise, they intuitively adapted their partnership when they decided to have a family. They have led lives that have relied on their intuition and their unique passions, including shifting the focus of their respective careers.

How do we help children in our families and in our community to find their truest selves, to develop their own passions? The resounding message from Mike and Mimi is to follow your instincts. It is evident that Mike and Mimi found their calling, because their efforts to be great partners, parents, and filmmakers, have produced great rewards for their extended family, our community.

Together, Mike and Mimi established a legacy of inspiring and educating people around the world about the beauty and fragility of our planet, from distant oceans to nearby coasts. Mimi’s work to celebrate community and nurture our children to follow their own passions continues.

To see Mike in action, view his Ted.com talk: Hooked by an Octopus.

To read Mimi’s inspiring and informative writings on nature, community, and children, visit her website at Wordpress.com. 

By Katherine Bradford