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National Geographic Freelance Photographer Wes Skiles Dies

Wes C. Skiles, a freelance photographer for National Geographic Magazine, died Wednesday while filming underwater in the ocean off Florida, his home state. He was 52. Photo of Wes Skiles by Luis Lamar “National Geographic has learned of the tragic death of Wes Skiles, the accomplished underwater photographer, cinematographer and explorer with whom we’ve worked...

Wes C. Skiles, a freelance photographer for National Geographic Magazine, died Wednesday while filming underwater in the ocean off Florida, his home state. He was 52.


Photo of Wes Skiles by Luis Lamar

“National Geographic has learned of the tragic death of Wes Skiles, the accomplished underwater photographer, cinematographer and explorer with whom we’ve worked frequently,” the National Geographic Society said in a statement today. “The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department is investigating the incident, which occurred following the conclusion of a scientific research expedition related to marine life off the east coast of Florida. Our thoughts are with Wes’ family.”


A photograph by Skiles is the current (August) cover story of National Geographic. Editor in Chief Chris Johns devoted his “Editor’s Note” to the photographer in the same issue (Editor’s Note: Diving Bahamas Caves). A gallery of Skiles’ photos for the story can be seen online: Deep Dark Secrets.

“Wes was a true explorer in every sense and a wonderful spirit,” Chris Johns said today. “He set a standard for underwater photography, cinematography and exploration that is unsurpassed. It was an honor to work with him, and he will be deeply missed.”

“Wes was a big bear of a man who had a tender heart. His tenacity to get after stories and make them the best they could be was second to none,” said Kurt Mutchler, executive editor, photography.

“He loved working for the magazine–and the feeling was mutual. He recently told me that his mother was always getting after him to work more for us, and I am deeply saddened we won’t have that opportunity. His last story for us, Bahamas Blue Holes, made the August 2010 cover. It’s a testament to Wes’s photographic skills, courage and child-like wonder in the search for the unknown. He will be sorely missed,” Mutchler said. 

Cuban crocodile skull photo by Wes Skiles.jpg

Click image to enlarge photograph and caption

Wes Skiles’ photograph (above) of veteran cave diver Brian Kakuk lifting a more than 3,000-year-old Cuban crocodile skull–an animal no longer found in the Bahamas–from sediment in Sawmill Sink is one of two dozen photos featured in the July 2010 National Geographic Magazine online gallery “Deep Dark Secrets.”

See the full photo gallery. 



From Keenan Smart, National Geographic Television Natural History Unit

Wes Skiles was a brave, brilliant and pioneering underwater cameraman with an extraordinary passion for exploring and documenting the world of cave and technical diving. His knowledge, courage  and expertise in this field was tremendous and he played a vital role in improving safety procedures for diving in difficult and dangerous conditions.

His explorations of his beloved Florida cave systems contributed a great deal to our understanding of groundwater science and the dynamics of water flow through Florida’s karst aquifers. It was this knowledge that led him to name his company Karst Productions.

Over the years Wes participated in numerous filming expeditions worldwide and his creative work featured in many award winning films.

He was a great friend of National Geographic and we will miss him very much indeed. Everyone at NGT sends our condolences to his family.


From Sadie Quarrier, senior photo editor, National Geographic Magazine

I was lucky enough to work with Wes as his photo editor on this month’s “Bahamas Blue Holes” story for NGM.

He was deeply passionate about diving, exploring, photographing and protecting the waterways. His boyish enthusiasm was infectious, and he delighted in telling non-divers about the wilder aspects of his watery underworld.

Wes was big-hearted and humble yet extremely driven. He was doggedly determined to produce the best possible article on these caves he called home. He dared to dream big, and no budget or contract would stop him from going after a shot he felt we needed, even if it was on his own dime.

But what I will remember most about my friend is his absolutely wonderful sense of humor, his over-the-top descriptions when he was really enthused about what he had just seen, and his twinkling eyes.  He was sort of the Santa Claus of the underwater world, bringing us gifts that we could never get on our own. 

To “Mr. Exciting,” as I nicknamed him, we celebrate your great life and achievements. Thanks for being the real gift.


From Adam Geiger, producer/cameraman, SeaLight Pictures

I never met Wes. But our paths crossed in the people we both knew–marine scientists, photographers, filmmakers, and our colleagues at National Geographic–true explorers and visionaries, like him. I’ve watched his work on TV and in print for years. He did amazing things and went to amazing places.

Our paths nearly intersected in Florida, where I might have met a legend and one of my heroes. I had to leave my Nat Geo crew because of another assignment, and Wes stepped in to complete a few extra days of filming. That he chose to return to work with those scientists on his own speaks to his sense of adventure, willingness to meet a challenge, and his dedication to capture images on the cutting edge of natural science.

I’m not much older than Wes. We both have families, and we both work in the same business–doing things that are inherently dangerous. I am so sorry for his family, robbed of much more than a consummate professional…a husband, father, and foundation of their lives.

I know that I will continue to do my best to bring nature–especially underwater — to a world audience; and I do it enriched and guided by the legacy of images, adventure and spirit of Wes Skiles. Fair wind and tide.


From Annie Pais, The Blue Path coordinator and executive director, Florida’s Eden:

We are all stunned by this news that Wes has died.

So many of us who work in water awareness here in Florida looked to Wes as our fearless leader. He was our pioneer, our champion for springs and aquifer protection.

Wes took his cameras where we’d never been before and showed us the wonders of a world out of sight…but right under our feet! He was our astronaut, exploring the unknown and then giving it to us in amazing films and photographs.

His research was so current and new that much of the time he invented his exploration equipment as he went.

He was totally committed to educating Florida about our own extraordinary resources…before it’s too late. He showed us how our springs are the windows to our aquifer…the canaries in our watery coal mine.

It took a lot out of him, physically and emotionally, to pound the political pavement…carving out inroads and getting into offices where most of us never enter.

He also helped create a science curriculum, The Waters Journey, and offered it to our public education system. He worked with Fort White High School’s model program, The Ichtucknee Classroom, which has embraced and taught the curriculum for five years.

Recently, he joined with many of us in a new coalition, The Blue Path–a group of scientists, educators, communicators and activists. He generously provided images and information whenever we need it.

His work will be part of a new exhibition, also called The Blue Path, at the Florida Museum of Natural History beginning August 12.

This is a tragedy for Florida and beyond.

Yes, he died doing what he loved, diving…but oh dear, what we have lost at this critical time for Florida’s springs and aquifer.


From Henry “Hank” Tonnemacher, 7-Seas-Ltd.

My condolences to Wes’ family, who will miss him more than all of us cave divers put together.

I met Wes in Florida when we were both just getting into underwater video, both graduating from 16mm and 8mm film underwater, circa 1983 I think. I’ve followed his career closely, an easy task with the full body of work he has produced.

Thanks to Wes a whole new world was shown to the public at large, and we could not protect that world without his work, his passion.

Thanks Wes!!!!!!!!!!!


From Alan Moskowitz, Hudson, MA

I’m just an ordinary National Geographic reader. When the August issue arrived I was mesmerized by the cover photo and blown away by the pull-out photo inside. I’ve only started reading the article, but the pictures are so compelling that I can’t wait to get back to it and be transported to the dangerous, mysterious, deep blue holes of the Bahamas.

When I heard on the radio that Wes Skiles had died I was struck by how much I appreciated his work and his ability to bring me to someplace beyond my imagination. As I sit in my hammock this weekend reading the article and savoring the pictures, I’ll think of Wes as now exploring the great and final mystery.


From John Keltonic, composer, JDK Music

I’ve rarely known anyone so good at (or so passionate about) the work he did. Wes fit no stereotypes at all; he was a country boy who was incredibly intelligent and deep thinking; a laid back personality who was incredibly passionate and funny.

I had the good fortune to create music for several of his films. When I last chatted with him a week or so ago, he was (as usual) incredibly excited about upcoming projects, and couldn’t wait to get started. You were truly one of a kind, my friend. You will be missed.


From Paul Carter, Toronto, Ontario

I experienced for the first time the phenomenal talent and courage of Wes Skiles in the August issue of National Geographic. As an amateur recreational diver I found his work inspiring and his contribution to our appreciation of these harsh environments truly humbling.

I was shocked and very saddened to read about his death, and I would like to send my sincere condolences to his family. The diving world and humanity have lost a very special person and I know his legacy will live on in all of our commitment to appreciating and preserving this world we are blessed with.


From Bron Taylor, professor of religion & nature, University of Florida

We and all living things lost a great friend on Wednesday. I was one of the lucky ones who knew Wes, and am devastated to learn of his passing.

He approached me after a talk I gave at a Univ. of Florida Water Institute conference a couple of years ago. My presentation explored the global spread of what can be called spiritualities of belonging and connection to nature, and was published earlier this year in Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. After the talk he told me, “I had chills going up my spine” listening to the presentation, and that he immediately knew he wanted to do a documentary drawing on it.

Soon, he and another scientist documentary film maker, Dr. Kenny Broad, asked me to work with them on a documentary about the trends I had been illuminating. They wanted to produce it for National Geographic. I fervently hope we can still make this happen and dedicate it to Wes, who quite clearly had a deep emotional connection to life on earth, even reverence for it. He certainly did everything he could to inspire such perception in others, and was tremendously successful in this regard.

The greatest tribute we can give to Wes, little doubt, is to further the work of this remarkable and wonderful man.


From John Moran, Florida Nature Photography

In Memoriam: Wes Skiles, Explorer, Photographer, Colleague and Friend

World-class explorer and image maker Wes Skiles, 52, died July 21 in a reef-diving incident in Palm Beach County, where he had been working on assignment for National Geographic. Wes was best known for his work in educational and adventure science films and for his pioneering exploration and documentation of Forida’s springs. His death comes days before publication of his cover story on the Blue Holes of the Bahamas in the August National Geographic.

Over the past 20 years, Wes created and produced more than a dozen films for major networks including PBS and was a pioneer in the field of high definition imaging, employing innovative techniques as both an underwater and topside shooter. In addition to his acclaimed Water’s Journey series of films, he directed the IMAX film “Journey into Amazing Caves” and led a major National Geographic expedition to Antarctica to film the largest iceberg in recorded history. His primary goal was to focus public attention on the earth’s most important resource, water.

Wes successfully filmed where no one had before. His unstoppable spirit of adventure led him to exotic destinations and fantastic voyages.  At ease with both motion and still photography he divided his time working on assignment for National Geographic Magazine and with television’s top producers of science, adventure and natural history programming.

Wes’s devotion to the study and protection of Florida’s springs led him to serve as the education chairman of the Florida Springs Task Force. His work in exploration and survey within Florida’s groundwater systems has been widely published in scientific journals and publications. He established both Karst Environmental Services and Karst Productions in order to pursue a career centered on his primary interest.

His bio goes on and on, with tales of escaping shark attacks and collapsing caves and dodging hurricanes over many years, all the while making fantastic pictures and managing to come home in one piece. Skiles’s life story reads like a screenplay from a Jules Verne movie.

So how did he get this job? This is my favorite part of Wes’s story. He’d be the first to tell you that in spite of an early love of science, he barely made it out of high school, and never went to college.

He enrolled in the School of Life and pursued a degree in “curiology,” as he called it. Shortly thereafter he had a boat and was running a diving business in Haiti, setting the stage for a life of adventure to follow.

Along the way he developed sound business acumen and figured out how to actually get paid to shoot the pictures he loved to shoot. Wes’s adventures took him all over the world but his first love, apart from his family, was exploring the waters of Florida: the rivers, lakes, coasts, swamps and especially the springs. The writer Loren Eisley said that if there’s magic to be found on the planet, it is to be found in water. Eisley and Skiles would have found much in common.

Wes was about more than just adventuring for the sake of a good time. He was a man on a mission, and his mission was to educate and to inspire the people of Florida; to show us and teach us about our remarkable array of water resources and how each of us has a role to play in safeguarding this precious resource.

Wes largely directed his efforts to reach out to people who generally paid little attention to the environment, and was equally at ease talking to schoolchildren, dairy farmers and governors.

He knew his work made a difference when he got letters such as the one that read, “You’ve done for the springs of Florida what Jacques Cousteau did for the oceans.”

Wes was a towering inspiration. His work took us places we could never imagine, and helped us to see and appreciate the world in a new light. His impact lives on. And for that, Wes, on behalf of my grandchildren yet unborn, and for all the people of Florida who never had a chance to personally acknowledge the important work you did, I say thank you.


From Lars Andersen, lead guide for Adventure Outpost, High Springs, Florida

Florida has lost one of it’s true heroes with the death of underwater explorer and educator, Wes Skiles. His cave diving explorations not only expanded the “known” limits of Florida’s last frontier–the underground aquifer system–they also advanced the science of cave diving with innovations and inventions he created to deal with the special challenges inherent in such endeavors.

He was equally fearless in the depths of the Floridan aquifer and standing on a podium in front of the Governor and other lawmakers–a rare quality. Florida’s emerging “water wars” has lost a powerful ally and an unwavering voice. Wes was calling attention to the threats to Florida’s water systems long before such talk became part of mainstream conversation. In fact, the general public’s growing awareness and concern for these threats can largely be attributed to Wes’ efforts.

A shining example of Wes’ unwavering passion came just a few months ago, when he lamented that he had not done enough to educate and talked about teaming-up to lead some above-water educational river trips for school kids.


From Brad Nolan, Dive Chronicles

Wes was a fantastic spokeperson for diving; anyone who saw his presentation/talk got excited about the sport. He was the Jacques Cousteau of cave/cavern diving.

The entire dive community will miss “Mr. Excitement.”

Florida did not lose a diving Icon, the entire world lost a diving Icon.

Wes’ presentations were presented at the level that everyone understood, thus making him one incredible guy.

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn