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


Wes Skiles, photographed at Ginnie Springs in 2001, shortly before departing to co-lead a National Geographic-sponsored expedition to Antarctica to document and photograph the largest iceberg in history. Photo by John Moran.

By John Moran

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.

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