Wes Skiles was always up for an adventure


Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 7:42 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 7:42 p.m.

When Wes Skiles was in his late teens, he was working at a resort in Haiti, striking out on the first of many great adventures as he taught tourists how to scuba dive.

Facts

VIEW PHOTOGRAPHS

To see some of Skiles' last photographs, which appeared in National Geographic in August, go visit
nationalgeographic.com.

One afternoon, he spotted a couple abandoning a small sailboat, so Skiles swam out to retrieve it, only to find that the rudder was broken and that the tide was quickly carrying him away.



"He wound up drifting around to the other side of the island," recalled his brother Jim Skiles. "He spent the night on the boat, and then he started paddling like mad to catch the tide."

Jim Skiles said that was so typical of his brother -- always willing to go on an adventure, even if he didn't know what was around the bend.

"He was willing to take reasonable risks," Jim Skiles said.

That's why it was so baffling to Jim and Wes Skiles' family that, after 40 years of diving, Wes Skiles drowned last year in about 70 feet of water three miles off the coast of Boynton Beach as he filmed divers on a reef for National Geographic Magazine.

"The water he was in was like you or I being in a swimming pool," Jim Skiles said.

The brother, older by five years, said he thought Wes Skiles might have had a heart attack or equipment malfunction, but the autopsy, toxicology report and equipment check showed nothing abnormal. The official autopsy concluded that it was an accidental drowning.

First dive

Wes Skiles grew up in 1960s Florida, riding his bike to a creek or lake near his home in Jacksonville.

"I have vivid memories of Wes digging out caves and making forts near the lake," Jim Skiles said. "At an early age, he was an adventurer, an explorer."

One year, when Jim Skiles was teaching swimming at the YMCA, their mom encouraged then-12-year-old Wes to go down to the Y with his brother and take a class -- any class.

"We were always the best of buddies," Jim Skiles said.

Wes Skiles picked an introduction to diving, basically learning how to snorkel. He had to wait a year before he was old enough to take the next class, the one in which he would add an air tank to his mask and fins.

He grew up in the age of "Flipper" and "Sea Hunt," television shows that depicted adventures in the water and with sea life.

"The idea of putting on a mask and creating 'Sea Hunt' and 'Flipper' just captured his spirit," Jim Skiles said.

Diving also began to motivate him in school. Divers have to use algebra to figure out depths and air levels, among other things, so, Jim Skiles said, math began to make sense to Wes.

In high school, Wes Skiles began working at Jacksonville dive shops. At 16, he became certified as a cave diver and went with world-renowned cave diver Sheck Exley to retrieve the bodies of two explorers who drowned in Royal Springs in Suwannee County.

Then, when most of his friends began heading off to college, Wes Skiles began his world adventures -- making that first trip to Haiti.

"He saw things under the water that none of us will ever see," Jim Skiles said.

A lifetime devotion

Wes Skiles, however, did share those sights in countless photographs and films he shot throughout his life. In the past 15 years alone, he produced and directed more than a dozen films, including an IMAX film, "Journey Into Amazing Caves." His work can be seen on postcards and in High Springs stores and restaurants, on state park brochures and in international magazines.

Taking his underwater camera, Wes Skiles dove all over the world and back again. It was his love of Florida's underwater caves and the flowing underground aquifer that brought him, his wife, Terri, and their two children, Nathan and Tessa, to High Springs, where he indulged his life's passion, submerging himself in the earth's pristine amniotic fluid that sustains us on the surface.

"I knew the second that I went into my first cave system that these were special places," Wes Skiles told environmental writer Bruce Ritchie in February 2010. "The strong, constant flow, this mysterious water -- and I was driven passionately to explore, map and photograph these places to bring this knowledge to the surface."

Skiles had met Terri in Jacksonville when she was working at a camera shop. Jim Skiles explained that Wes had bought one of his first professional cameras from Terri and that she was intrigued by this young man bent on adventure.

"He must have offered her the opportunity to go on a dive, and there you go," Jim Skiles said.

The pair devoted their lives to the springs -- to photographing them and protecting them.

"People talk about the Floridan aquifer all the time, and a lot of them are geologists with Ph.D.s, and the only thing they know about the Floridan aquifer is what they've seen from core samples," said Ross Ambrose, one of Skiles' colleagues. "And here you had an individual who went down and made a large part of his career taking still and video images of places nobody had ever seen. And the amount of knowledge -- aside from the joy that brought ... is one of the reasons Wes became so passionate about the springs. It's not about protecting when the water comes out, it's understanding what's going on underwater and how what we do above it, affects it."

Brush with death

On a 1988 trip to Australia's Pannikin Plains cave, Skiles had one of two near-death experiences diving caves. Jim Skiles said that while his brother and a team of others, including Andrew and Liz Wight, were exploring a cave, the surface above encountered a storm that dumped two years' worth of rain in 20 minutes. According to cavediving.net, 300 million liters of water flowed into the cave, collapsing part of the entrance and trapping most of the team below. Skiles filmed his own escape from the cave, and it is that experience and one other on which Andrew Wight wrote the screenplay for James Cameron's new 3-D film, "Sanctum."

Cameron stayed with the Skiles family at their High Springs home as the famed director explored the idea of the movie. Skiles even took him spelunking as Cameron turned to one of the world's foremost experts on cave diving and underwater photography for advice.

"Wes loved living life, enjoying whomever he had the pleasure to be with," his wife, Terri, wrote on a memorial Facebook page. "What he was the most was a true friend and devoted father. Wes loved to see people living up to their destinies."

Jim Skiles explained that Wes and Terri Skiles welcomed anyone into their home, located at the epicenter of the world's best cave diving.

"Looking at a group of his friends," Jim Skiles said, "you're going to see Ph.D.s and people who are high school dropouts. He's never discriminated against anybody."

Wes Skiles took his son Nathan on one of his last adventures, to photograph the blue holes of the Bahamas, including the deepest-known underwater cave in the world. Skiles' shot of two divers making their way through the eerie blue waters of "The Cascade Room" appeared on National Geographic's cover. One of the divers is Nathan.

"We find these places inside the world which are otherworldly, deep connections to the inner earth that reveal how little we understand about our state," Skiles said last year.

Contact Kimberly C. Moore at kimberly.moore@nytrng.com or 352-374-5036.

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