Wes Skiles, 52

Wes Skiles, photographer who captured vivid worlds underwater, dies at 52

By T. Rees Shapiro
Thursday, August 5, 2010

Wes Skiles, 52, a freelance photographer and cinematographer whose mystifying underwater images of uncharted stalagmite caves and ancient crocodile skeletons revealed a dark, alien world in vibrant color, died July 21 off the east coast of Florida.

He was filming a project on the behavior of high-speed fish near the Boynton Beach Inlet when he was found unconscious on the ocean floor. He was pronounced dead at a hospital in West Palm Beach, and police were investigating the cause of death.

In his 27 years as a photojournalist, Mr. Skiles escaped from a collapsed ocean cave off the Australian coast and was among the first people to set foot on the largest iceberg in Antarctica.

One time, off the coast of South Africa, a shark jammed itself into Mr. Skiles's protective cage. The burly photographer beat the creature back with his heavy, waterproof camera, taking pictures throughout the episode, and had close-up photos of the great white's jagged teeth as a token of his survival.

Mr. Skiles, a resident of High Springs, Fla., was recently part of a team that spent two months in the Bahamas exploring perilous inland flooded caves known as "blue holes."

In this month's issue of National Geographic, which features a cover photo by Mr. Skiles, blue holes are described "living laboratories" and "the scientific equivalent to Tut's tomb. From a diver's perspective, they're on par with Everest or K2, requiring highly specialized training, equipment, and experience."

Mr. Skiles and the other explorers spent time on five Bahamian islands, making 150 dives in dozens of blue holes, which are unique ecological systems. In a blue hole such as "Stargate," on Andros Island, a thin layer of freshwater, formed by rainfall, acts like a lid on the soupy, oxygen-low saltwater trapped in the belly of the cave.

The lack of oxygen means there is a low population of bacteria that eats organic matter -- leaving, for example, a 3,000-year-old Cuban crocodile skull uncovered in almost perfect condition. The team also found human remains -- a diver clad in 1970s scuba gear.

Blue holes necessitate precision diving: They are sporadically filled with clouds of poisonous gases that can cause delirium or death. The explorers weaved through caves containing stalagmite forests tens of thousands of years old and so fragile that an errant fin, or the knock of scuba tank, could cause the precious formations to crumble.

Such adventures were the reason Mr. Skiles became a photographer, he said. In an online profile, he quoted an ad from Sir Ernest Shackleton, who was seeking men for his Antarctic expedition: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success."

Under it, Mr. Skiles wrote, "pretty much reflects my life."

Wesley Cofer Skiles was born March 6, 1958, in Jacksonville, Fla. His father was a parts manager for General Motors, and his mother often let him skip school to go surfing.

He became a certified scuba diver at 13 and grew fascinated with the worlds he found under his sandy feet off Florida's northern coast.

He began taking photographs of his explorations to share with friends and family, and his hobby became a profession. He became a hands-on expert on underwater caves and was known as Florida's Jacques Cousteau.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Skiles founded Karst Productions, a photography and cinematography company named for limestone found in freshwater caves and aquifers. He filmed, produced and directed dozens of programs for television, including segments for PBS, Imax and the Discovery Channel.

A conservationist, Mr. Skiles co-founded Karst Environmental Services in the mid-1980s, a hydrogeological consulting firm that performed water studies and tests for private companies and the state of Florida.

Survivors include his wife of 29 years, Terri Paulson Skiles, and their two children, Nathan Skiles and Tessa Skiles, all of High Springs; a brother; and a sister.

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