Cave explorer, springs advocate Wes Skiles dies while diving

Florida’s globally known cave explorer, photographer and Florida springs advocate Wes Skiles died Wednesday while filming off the coast of Palm Beach County, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday. (See statement attached as comments).

Based in High Springs with Karst Productions, Skiles, 52, was a former member of the Florida Springs Task Force. His “Water’s Journey: The Hidden Rivers of Florida” video in 2003 was sponsored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Department of Education, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Suwannee River Water Management District.

Skiles had finished a National Geographic expedition off the east coat of Florida, according to the magazine. The Sheriff’s Office said he was filming at a reef three miles off Boynton Beach, when he signaled to other divers that he was surfacing. When those divers surfaced, they saw Skiles’ body laying on the bottom of the ocean floor. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

During the past 15 years, Skiles produced and directed over a dozen major films on adventure and science. His work included most recently the IMAX film “Journey into Amazing Caves” and a film for National Geographic in Antarctica on exploring the largest iceberg in recorded history. He shot the August National Geographic cover photo of caves in the Bahamas.

“The springs play such an integral role to the health and the nature of our rivers especially in North Florida,” Skiles told “Rally for the Rivers” in Palatka in February. “I think people don’t really have a good sense of the significance groundwater and springs play in our water supply.”

Jim Stevenson, a former state biologist and chairman of the Florida Springs Task Force, said Skiles produced videos that the task force showed to county commissions throughout the Suwannee River region.

In “Water’s Journey” video, cameras traced the divers above the surface as they went through residential yards, crossed parking lots and even went through a crowded restaurant over the cave system.

“He knew more about the hydrology than anybody in the room,” Stevenson said. “He was not a scientist. It was just through observation and common sense that he knew about how water moves. It enabled him to be quite an expert.”

Skiles grew up exploring his local springs and cave systems, according to an accompanying biography with the NOGI award he received from the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences in 2007.

An active scuba diver at 13, Skiles was certified as a cave diver at 16. At that age he went with cave diving legend, Sheck Exley. Skiles’ first dive with Exley was the recovery of two divers who drowned in Royal Spring.

Skiles was certified as a PADI open water instructor. In 1982 he was training chairman of the National Speleological Societies, Cave Diving Section (NSSCDS) during the cave diving’s most deadly period. Over the next 35 years he would become known as one of the key architects of cave and technical diving, according to the NOGI awarders.

“I started when the springs were unexplored for the most part,” Skiles said in February. “We as cave divers were just starting to venture into these places.”

“I knew the second that I went into my first cave system that these were special places,” he said. “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 said he faced a challenge in the 1970s and 1980s in getting people to believe the springs had any significance. He said he would show maps and photos of cave systems to water management officials but they were dismissed as not playing a role in groundwater movement.

“Now we know that is not the case,” Skiles said. He said his quest is to put the underground streams and rivers on a map of Florida.

“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,” he said. “There is actually a land form underground.”

See also Palm Beach Post article:

USA Today:

See also National Geographic blog posting:

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Top photo by Luis Lamar copyrighted by National Geographic. Bottom photo by Wes Skiles courtesy of the Florida Forever Coalition. Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

7 thoughts on “Cave explorer, springs advocate Wes Skiles dies while diving”

  1. Goodbye friend

    know you've been a great privilege for me. My condolences to all family.

    Eduardo Macedo – Brazil

  2. Media Advisory (Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office)

    Diver/Photographer dies while filming locally for National Geographic

    On Wednesday, July 21, 2010, approximately 3:03 pm, Mr. Wesley Skiles, DOB: 3/06/58 of 5709 NE County Road 340, High Springs, Florida was diving, with a group of divers, three miles east of the Boynton Beach Inlet. Mr. Skiles was filming locally for National Geographic. Mr. Skiles motioned to one of his divers that he was ascending because he was out of film. One of the other divers saw him making his way to the surface but continued working and did not maintain a visual of Mr. Skiles. Several minutes later the remaining divers decided to ascend. As the remaining divers made their way to the surface they saw Mr. Skiles body lying at the bottom of the ocean floor, near the reef, motionless. The divers quickly took hold of Mr. Skiles and rushed him to the surface. Mr. Skiles was pulled onto the vessel by the Captain. CPR was immediately administered as they made their way to the marina.

    Mr. Skiles was transported to St Mary’s ER where he was pronounced deceased.

  3. This is very sad news – Wes was one of those people outside of the usual realm that seemed to march to his own dictates. We all looked up to him and were amazed by the works he involved himself with. The Original Florida Springs Manual had a number of beautiful photos that he donated.

    My heart hurts with this news
    Dan Pennington

  4. Thanks Dan — I offer my sympathies. I've kept a postcard for 20 years of a shot looking straight down into Ginnie Spring from over the head of someone in a canoe. I thought it was the ultimate springs photo. I didn't realize until about five years that it was a Wes Skiles shot. I felt like he was the best photographer for capturing the beauty of Florida's springs and describing the threats to them.

  5. Am I the only one who questions that this experienced, sensitive, capable artist might have encountered an unknown "burp," as it is called, of the methane gas now leaking from the fractured sea floor? Such a trgic mystery.

  6. Thank You, Bruce Ritchie, for the details. Is there any speculation about what might have occurred in those "few minutes?" I'm assuming the waters were somewhat shallow, since the other divers were able to see his body on the ocean floor. Very disconcerting, to lose such a remarkable soul this way.

  7. The methane gas seems to be a reference to the BP oil spill, and that is in the Gulf of Mexico. Wes Skiles was diving in the Atlantic Ocean.
    Regarding speculation as to what happened, I can only guess that he may have suffered a sudden attack of illness as he was surfacing. But I have nothing to go by other than the police report.

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