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Mission Blue Voyage

Mike deGruy: Hooked by an octopus

April 7, 2010

Underwater filmmaker Mike deGruy has spent decades looking intimately at the ocean. A consummate storyteller, he takes the stage at Mission Blue to share his awe and excitement -- and his fears -- about the blue heart of our planet.

Mike deGruy - Filmmaker
Mike deGruy filmed in and on the ocean for more than three decades -- becoming almost as famous for his storytelling as for his glorious, intimate visions of the sea and the creatures who live in it. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I first became fascinated with octopus at an early age.
00:15
I grew up in Mobile, Alabama --
00:18
somebody's got to be from Mobile, right? --
00:20
and Mobile sits at the confluence of five rivers,
00:22
forming this beautiful delta.
00:25
And the delta has alligators crawling
00:27
in and out of rivers filled with fish
00:29
and cypress trees dripping with snakes,
00:31
birds of every flavor.
00:33
It's an absolute magical wonderland to live in --
00:35
if you're a kid interested in animals, to grow up in.
00:38
And this delta water flows to Mobile Bay, and finally into the Gulf of Mexico.
00:41
And I remember my first real contact with octopus
00:45
was probably at age five or six.
00:48
I was in the gulf, and I was swimming around and saw a little octopus on the bottom.
00:50
And I reached down and picked him up, and immediately
00:53
became fascinated and impressed by its speed and its strength and agility.
00:56
It was prying my fingers apart and moving to the back of my hand.
00:59
It was all I could do to hold onto this amazing creature.
01:03
Then it sort of calmed down in the palms of my hands
01:05
and started flashing colors,
01:08
just pulsing all of these colors.
01:10
And as I looked at it, it kind of tucked its arms under it,
01:12
raised into a spherical shape
01:15
and turned chocolate brown with two white stripes.
01:17
I'm going, "My gosh!" I had never seen anything like this in my life!
01:20
So I marveled for a moment, and then decided it was time to release him,
01:23
so I put him down.
01:26
The octopus left my hands and then did the damnedest thing:
01:28
It landed on the bottom in the rubble
01:32
and -- fwoosh! -- vanished
01:35
right before my eyes.
01:37
And I knew, right then, at age six,
01:38
that is an animal that I want to learn more about. So I did.
01:40
And I went off to college and got a degree in marine zoology,
01:43
and then moved to Hawaii and entered graduate school
01:46
at the University of Hawaii.
01:48
And while a student at Hawaii, I worked at the Waikiki Aquarium.
01:50
And the aquarium had a lot of big fish tanks
01:53
but not a lot of invertebrate displays,
01:55
and being the spineless guy, I thought, well
01:57
I'll just go out in the field and collect these wonderful animals
02:00
I had been learning about as a student
02:03
and bring them in, and I built these elaborate sets and put them on display.
02:06
Now, the fish in the tanks were gorgeous to look at,
02:09
but they didn't really interact with people.
02:13
But the octopus did.
02:16
If you walked up to an octopus tank,
02:18
especially early in the morning before anyone arrived,
02:20
the octopus would rise up and look at you
02:22
and you're thinking, "Is that guy really looking at me? He is looking at me!"
02:24
And you walk up to the front of the tank. Then you realize
02:27
that these animals all have different personalities:
02:29
Some of them would hold their ground,
02:33
others would slink into the back of the tank and disappear in the rocks,
02:35
and one in particular, this amazing animal ...
02:39
I went up to the front of the tank, and he's just staring at me,
02:41
and he had little horns come up above his eyes.
02:44
So I went right up to the front of the tank --
02:46
I was three or four inches from the front glass --
02:48
and the octopus was sitting on a perch, a little rock,
02:50
and he came off the rock and he also came down right to the front of the glass.
02:53
So I was staring at this animal about six or seven inches away,
02:57
and at that time I could actually focus that close;
03:00
now as I look at my fuzzy fingers I realize those days are long gone.
03:03
Anyway, there we were, staring at each other,
03:07
and he reaches down and grabs an armful of gravel
03:09
and releases it in the jet of water entering the tank
03:12
from the filtration system,
03:15
and -- chk chk chk chk chk! -- this gravel hits the front of the glass and falls down.
03:17
He reaches up, takes another armful of gravel, releases it --
03:20
chk chk chk chk chk! -- same thing.
03:23
Then he lifts another arm and I lift an arm.
03:26
Then he lifts another arm and I lift another arm.
03:29
And then I realize the octopus won the arms race,
03:32
because I was out and he had six left. (Laughter)
03:35
But the only way I can describe what I was seeing that day
03:38
was that this octopus was playing,
03:42
which is a pretty sophisticated behavior for a mere invertebrate.
03:45
So, about three years into my degree,
03:49
a funny thing happened on the way to the office,
03:51
which actually changed the course of my life.
03:54
A man came into the aquarium. It's a long story, but essentially
03:56
he sent me and a couple of friends of mine to the South Pacific
03:59
to collect animals for him,
04:02
and as we left, he gave us two 16-millimeter movie cameras.
04:04
He said, "Make a movie about this expedition."
04:07
"OK, a couple of biologists making a movie --
04:10
this'll be interesting,"
04:13
and off we went. And we did, we made a movie,
04:14
which had to be the worst movie ever made
04:16
in the history of movie making,
04:18
but it was a blast. I had so much fun.
04:20
And I remember that proverbial light going off in my head,
04:22
thinking, "Wait a minute.
04:24
Maybe I can do this all the time.
04:26
Yeah, I'll be a filmmaker."
04:28
So I literally came back from that job,
04:30
quit school, hung my filmmaking shingle
04:32
and just never told anyone that I didn't know what I was doing.
04:34
It's been a good ride.
04:37
And what I learned in school though was really beneficial.
04:39
If you're a wildlife filmmaker
04:41
and you're going out into the field to film animals,
04:43
especially behavior,
04:45
it helps to have a fundamental background
04:47
on who these animals are,
04:49
how they work and, you know, a bit about their behaviors.
04:51
But where I really learned about octopus
04:54
was in the field, as a filmmaker
04:56
making films with them,
04:58
where you're allowed to spend large periods of time
05:00
with the animals, seeing octopus being octopus
05:03
in their ocean homes.
05:06
I remember I took a trip to Australia,
05:08
went to an island called One Tree Island.
05:10
And apparently, evolution had occurred
05:13
at a pretty rapid rate on One Tree,
05:15
between the time they named it and the time I arrived,
05:17
because I'm sure there were at least three trees
05:20
on that island when we were there.
05:22
Anyway, one tree is situated right next to
05:24
a beautiful coral reef.
05:26
In fact, there's a surge channel
05:28
where the tide is moving back and forth, twice a day, pretty rapidly.
05:30
And there's a beautiful reef,
05:33
very complex reef, with lots of animals,
05:34
including a lot of octopus.
05:37
And not uniquely
05:39
but certainly, the octopus in Australia
05:41
are masters at camouflage.
05:43
As a matter of fact,
05:45
there's one right there.
05:47
So our first challenge was to find these things,
05:49
and that was a challenge, indeed.
05:51
But the idea is, we were there for a month
05:53
and I wanted to acclimate the animals to us
05:55
so that we could see behaviors without disturbing them.
05:57
So the first week was pretty much spent
06:00
just getting as close as we could,
06:02
every day a little closer, a little closer, a little closer.
06:04
And you knew what the limit was: they would start getting twitchy
06:06
and you'd back up, come back in a few hours.
06:08
And after the first week, they ignored us.
06:11
It was like, "I don't know what that thing is, but he's no threat to me."
06:14
So they went on about their business
06:16
and from a foot away, we're watching mating
06:18
and courting and fighting
06:20
and it is just an unbelievable experience.
06:22
And one of the most fantastic displays
06:25
that I remember, or at least visually,
06:27
was a foraging behavior.
06:29
And they had a lot of different techniques
06:31
that they would use for foraging,
06:33
but this particular one used vision.
06:35
And they would see a coral head,
06:37
maybe 10 feet away,
06:39
and start moving over toward that coral head.
06:41
And I don't know whether they actually saw crab in it, or imagined that one might be,
06:44
but whatever the case, they would leap off the bottom
06:48
and go through the water and land right on top of this coral head,
06:51
and then the web between the arms
06:54
would completely engulf the coral head,
06:56
and they would fish out, swim for crabs.
06:58
And as soon as the crabs touched the arm, it was lights out.
07:00
And I always wondered what happened under that web.
07:03
So we created a way to find out, (Laughter)
07:05
and I got my first look at that famous beak in action.
07:08
It was fantastic.
07:11
If you're going to make a lot of films about a particular group of animals,
07:13
you might as well pick one that's fairly common.
07:16
And octopus are, they live in all the oceans.
07:18
They also live deep.
07:20
And I can't say octopus are responsible
07:22
for my really strong interest
07:24
in getting in subs and going deep,
07:26
but whatever the case, I like that.
07:28
It's like nothing you've ever done.
07:30
If you ever really want to get away from it all
07:32
and see something that you have never seen,
07:34
and have an excellent chance of seeing something
07:36
no one has ever seen, get in a sub.
07:38
You climb in, seal the hatch, turn on a little oxygen,
07:41
turn on the scrubber,
07:43
which removes the CO2 in the air you breathe, and they chuck you overboard.
07:45
Down you go. There's no connection to the surface
07:48
apart from a pretty funky radio.
07:50
And as you go down, the washing machine
07:52
at the surface calms down.
07:54
And it gets quiet.
07:56
And it starts getting really nice.
07:58
And as you go deeper, that lovely, blue water you were launched in
08:00
gives way to darker and darker blue.
08:03
And finally, it's a rich lavender,
08:06
and after a couple of thousand feet, it's ink black.
08:08
And now you've entered the realm
08:11
of the mid-water community.
08:13
You could give an entire talk
08:16
about the creatures that live in the mid-water.
08:18
Suffice to say though, as far as I'm concerned,
08:20
without question, the most bizarre designs
08:23
and outrageous behaviors
08:26
are in the animals that live in the mid-water community.
08:29
But we're just going to zip right past this area,
08:32
this area that includes about 95 percent
08:34
of the living space on our planet
08:37
and go to the mid-ocean ridge, which I think is even more extraordinary.
08:39
The mid-ocean ridge is a huge mountain range,
08:42
40,000 miles long, snaking around the entire globe.
08:45
And they're big mountains, thousands of feet tall,
08:48
some of which are tens of thousands of feet
08:50
and bust through the surface,
08:52
creating islands like Hawaii.
08:54
And the top of this mountain range
08:56
is splitting apart, creating a rift valley.
08:58
And when you dive into that rift valley, that's where the action is
09:01
because literally thousands of active volcanoes
09:04
are going off at any point in time
09:07
all along this 40,000 mile range.
09:09
And as these tectonic plates are spreading apart,
09:11
magma, lava is coming up and filling those gaps,
09:14
and you're looking land -- new land --
09:17
being created right before your eyes.
09:20
And over the tops of them is 3,000 to 4,000 meters of water
09:22
creating enormous pressure,
09:25
forcing water down through the cracks toward the center of the earth,
09:27
until it hits a magma chamber
09:30
where it becomes superheated
09:32
and supersaturated with minerals,
09:34
reverses its flow and starts shooting back to the surface
09:36
and is ejected out of the earth like a geyser at Yellowstone.
09:38
In fact, this whole area
09:41
is like a Yellowstone National Park with all of the trimmings.
09:43
And this vent fluid is about 600 or 700 degrees F.
09:46
The surrounding water is just a couple of degrees above freezing.
09:49
So it immediately cools,
09:52
and it can no longer hold in suspension
09:54
all of the material that it's dissolved,
09:56
and it precipitates out, forming black smoke.
09:58
And it forms these towers, these chimneys
10:01
that are 10, 20, 30 feet tall.
10:03
And all along the sides of these chimneys
10:05
is shimmering with heat and loaded with life.
10:08
You've got black smokers going all over the place
10:11
and chimneys that have tube worms
10:13
that might be eight to 10 feet long.
10:15
And out of the tops of these tube worms
10:18
are these beautiful red plumes.
10:20
And living amongst the tangle of tube worms
10:22
is an entire community of animals:
10:25
shrimp, fish, lobsters, crab,
10:27
clams and swarms of arthropods
10:29
that are playing that dangerous game
10:31
between over here is scalding hot and freezing cold.
10:33
And this whole ecosystem
10:36
wasn't even known about
10:38
until 33 years ago.
10:40
And it completely threw science on its head.
10:42
It made scientists rethink
10:46
where life on Earth might have actually begun.
10:48
And before the discovery of these vents,
10:50
all life on Earth, the key to life on Earth,
10:53
was believed to be the sun and photosynthesis.
10:55
But down there, there is no sun,
10:57
there is no photosynthesis;
10:59
it's chemosynthetic environment down there driving it,
11:01
and it's all so ephemeral.
11:04
You might film this
11:06
unbelievable hydrothermal vent,
11:08
which you think at the time has to be on another planet.
11:10
It's amazing to think that this is actually on earth;
11:13
it looks like aliens in an alien environment.
11:15
But you go back to the same vent eight years later
11:18
and it can be completely dead.
11:21
There's no hot water.
11:23
All of the animals are gone, they're dead,
11:25
and the chimneys are still there
11:27
creating a really nice ghost town,
11:29
an eerie, spooky ghost town,
11:31
but essentially devoid of animals, of course.
11:33
But 10 miles down the ridge...
11:35
pshhh! There's another volcano going.
11:38
And there's a whole new hydrothermal vent community that has been formed.
11:40
And this kind of life and death of hydrothermal vent communities
11:43
is going on every 30 or 40 years
11:46
all along the ridge.
11:48
And that ephemeral nature
11:50
of the hydrothermal vent community
11:52
isn't really different from some of the
11:54
areas that I've seen
11:56
in 35 years of traveling around, making films.
11:58
Where you go and film a really nice sequence at a bay.
12:01
And you go back, and I'm at home,
12:04
and I'm thinking, "Okay, what can I shoot ...
12:06
Ah! I know where I can shoot that.
12:08
There's this beautiful bay, lots of soft corals and stomatopods."
12:10
And you show up, and it's dead.
12:12
There's no coral, algae growing on it, and the water's pea soup.
12:15
You think, "Well, what happened?"
12:18
And you turn around,
12:20
and there's a hillside behind you with a neighborhood going in,
12:22
and bulldozers are pushing piles of soil back and forth.
12:24
And over here
12:27
there's a golf course going in.
12:29
And this is the tropics.
12:31
It's raining like crazy here.
12:33
So this rainwater is flooding down the hillside,
12:35
carrying with it sediments from the construction site,
12:38
smothering the coral and killing it.
12:40
And fertilizers and pesticides
12:42
are flowing into the bay from the golf course --
12:44
the pesticides killing all the larvae and little animals,
12:47
fertilizer creating this beautiful plankton bloom --
12:50
and there's your pea soup.
12:52
But, encouragingly, I've seen just the opposite.
12:54
I've been to a place that was a pretty trashed bay.
12:57
And I looked at it, just said, "Yuck,"
13:00
and go and work on the other side of the island.
13:02
Five years later, come back,
13:04
and that same bay is now gorgeous. It's beautiful.
13:06
It's got living coral, fish all over the place,
13:09
crystal clear water, and you go, "How did that happen?"
13:11
Well, how it happened is
13:14
the local community galvanized.
13:16
They recognized what was happening on the hillside and put a stop to it;
13:18
enacted laws and made permits required
13:21
to do responsible construction
13:23
and golf course maintenance
13:25
and stopped the sediments flowing into the bay,
13:27
and stopped the chemicals flowing into the bay,
13:29
and the bay recovered.
13:31
The ocean has an amazing ability
13:33
to recover, if we'll just leave it alone.
13:35
I think Margaret Mead
13:38
said it best.
13:40
She said that a small group of thoughtful people
13:42
could change the world.
13:44
Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
13:46
And a small group of thoughtful people
13:49
changed that bay.
13:51
I'm a big fan of grassroots organizations.
13:53
I've been to a lot of lectures
13:56
where, at the end of it, inevitably,
13:58
one of the first questions that comes up is,
14:00
"But, but what can I do?
14:02
I'm an individual. I'm one person.
14:04
And these problems are so large and global, and it's just overwhelming."
14:06
Fair enough question.
14:09
My answer to that is don't look
14:11
at the big, overwhelming issues of the world.
14:13
Look in your own backyard.
14:16
Look in your heart, actually.
14:18
What do you really care about that isn't right where you live?
14:21
And fix it.
14:24
Create a healing zone in your neighborhood
14:26
and encourage others to do the same.
14:28
And maybe these healing zones can sprinkle a map,
14:30
little dots on a map.
14:32
And in fact, the way that we can communicate today --
14:34
where Alaska is instantly knowing what's going on in China,
14:37
and the Kiwis did this, and then over in England they tried to ...
14:40
and everybody is talking to everyone else --
14:42
it's not isolated points on a map anymore,
14:44
it's a network we've created.
14:46
And maybe these healing zones can start growing,
14:48
and possibly even overlap, and good things can happen.
14:50
So that's how I answer that question.
14:53
Look in your own backyard, in fact, look in the mirror.
14:56
What can you do that is more responsible
14:59
than what you're doing now?
15:01
And do that, and spread the word.
15:03
The vent community animals
15:06
can't really do much
15:08
about the life and death
15:10
that's going on where they live, but up here we can.
15:12
In theory, we're thinking, rational human beings.
15:15
And we can make changes to our behavior
15:18
that will influence and affect the environment,
15:21
like those people changed the health of that bay.
15:24
Now, Sylvia's TED Prize wish
15:26
was to beseech us to do anything we could,
15:29
everything we could,
15:32
to set aside not pin pricks,
15:34
but significant expanses
15:36
of the ocean for preservation,
15:38
"hope spots," she calls them.
15:40
And I applaud that. I loudly applaud that.
15:42
And it's my hope that some of these "hope spots"
15:46
can be in the deep ocean,
15:49
an area that has historically
15:51
been seriously neglected, if not abused.
15:54
The term "deep six" comes to mind:
15:57
"If it's too big or too toxic for a landfill,
15:59
deep six it!"
16:02
So, I hope that we can also keep
16:04
some of these "hope spots" in the deep sea.
16:06
Now, I don't get a wish,
16:09
but I certainly can say
16:12
that I will do anything I can
16:15
to support Sylvia Earle's wish.
16:17
And that I do.
16:19
Thank you very much. (Applause)
16:21

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Mike deGruy - Filmmaker
Mike deGruy filmed in and on the ocean for more than three decades -- becoming almost as famous for his storytelling as for his glorious, intimate visions of the sea and the creatures who live in it.

Why you should listen

Mike deGruy was a graduate student in marine biology when he first picked up a 16mm film camera. Thirty-plus years on, his company, the Film Crew Inc., travels the oceans making underwater films for the BBC, PBS, National Geographic and Discovery Channel. He dived beneath both poles and visited the hydrothermal vents in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. And as you can imagine, he collected many stories along the way.

An accomplished diver and underwater cinematographer, deGruy also became a go-to host and expedition member on shows like the recent Mysteries of the Shark Coast with Céline Cousteau and Richard Fitzpatrick. (He was a regular on Shark Week -- and a shark attack survivor himelf.) But his first passion was cephalopods, and in fact deGruy and his team were the first to film two rarely seen cephalopods, the nautilus and the vampire squid, in their home ocean.

 

The original video is available on TED.com
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