At the moment of his death Wes Skiles must have felt utterly alive. He was doing what he loved doing more than anything. Wearing diving equipment, carrying a camera, he was in the process of capturing a hidden world. • He was a Florida boy who was also a 21st century Viking, an explorer without peer. He explored deep water and underwater caves mostly in Florida but in other places too. He sought danger all over the globe, though not in a deliberately macho way. He wanted to know what was down there. He wanted to see what few other human beings had ever seen and then show his pictures to folks who would otherwise never understand or sufficiently value their planet. • He was 52 years old when he died in Palm Beach County on July 21. For most of us, a half century sounds all too short. But for someone like Wes, who lived life on the edge, five decades might have constituted a ripe old age.
The most famous diver in history was the late Jacques Cousteau. The second most famous diver was probably Wesley Cofer Skiles. Many of us have seen his photographs in magazines such as National Geographic. His photos of blue holes in the Bahamas, for example, grace the August issue on sale at your nearest Publix. Many more people have seen his documentary films on television or at the movies. Water's Journey — the Hidden Rivers of Florida, his look at the Florida beneath Florida, is among his best known. Another is Ice Island, which he filmed in Antarctica under and inside the ice.
"One hundred and 50 years after the advent of photography," said Gainesville landscape photographer John Moran, "after we thought we had seen everything, he showed us a whole new world."
He started diving as a kid in Jacksonville. Soon he was an expert, the go-to guy for advice at northeast Florida dive shops. And he was only 16. Among other things, he was beginning to explore the underwater caves near Gainesville, arguably among the most dangerous places on Earth for the careless. In the decade or so before 1970, for example, at least 26 divers drowned exploring the main cave at Ginnie Springs. "They'd go in with 7-Eleven flashlights and ski rope," said Mark Wray, who owns the Ginnie Springs attraction now. Wes helped install a gate across the cave mouth to keep out the death-seeking rookies. It's still in place. A nearby sign bears a skull and crossbones.
Wes, the guy who loved life, recovered the bodies of dozens of drowned divers during his half century, including friends. "He lived with the idea of mortality," says Jill Heinerth, who produced his movies and lived close to Wes in High Springs, blocks away from Ginnie Springs.
Yet he never obsessed about it. Why bother? Diving deep, exploring dangerous caves, getting close to dangerous animals, was what he did. What was he going to do for kicks? Play golf? Watch reality TV?
In Africa, he modified a shark cage to allow better access to the Indian Ocean for his high-definition camera and his own mortal self. As the 14-foot great white approached, Wes leaned completely out of the cage with his camera. The shark kept coming.
Wes continued filming. The shark kept coming. Wes retreated into the cage. The shark kept coming. Chasing Wes, the shark shoved its massive head into the cage's open door. In a corner, Wes assumed the fetal position and prepared to be eaten.
Thrusting its tail, the shark propelled the cage toward the bottom, out of sight of the boat. On deck, friends began weeping.
Wes popped to the surface.
"I got amazing video!" he shouted.
• • •
He liked to laugh. He liked to sing at the top of his voice. He taught himself to play guitar and harmonica. Friends liked to say that "Wes runs with scissors." He loved fireworks. Sometimes he got in bottle rocket fights with friends. When he talked to schoolkids, he wore an Indiana Jones-style hat as a joke. After a talk, he'd go to the cafeteria and have lunch, not with the principal, but with the kids.
He was an underwater astronaut. He was an ambassador for Florida's springs and for clean water. He came up with new ways to film in caverns. He developed new techniques for cave exploration that involved lights, ropes, air and common sense. He helped map out some of the longest underwater caves on Earth, including awesome Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee. He mapped a cave for about a mile.
He was married for three decades to Terri Skiles, a brave and patient woman. They had two children, Nathan and Tessa, who shared their dad's sense of adventure. Often, Dad brought friends home. In the Skiles household, strangers often slept on the couch, drank coffee, told stories, listened to even better stories, laughed until they cried.
He enjoyed practical jokes. Sometimes, deep in a cave, he'd pick up a prehistoric skull, hold it over his face and tap on the back of an already nervous companion. A prized possession was a novelty store set of plastic, yellowed, rotten teeth.
Many people who visited High Springs wanted to meet the town's only celebrity. "I'll introduce you to Wes," a friend might say to the eager fan, "but for the love of God don't look at his teeth. He's really self-conscious." The pilgrim would shake hands and stare at the ground so as not to embarrass the famous diver with the yellow teeth.
Wes would spit out the teeth in laughter.
• • •
The day before he died, he visited his old friend Spencer Slate in Key Largo. They had met when they were young and foolish and thought they were immortal. Spencer runs a dive boat in the Keys. They traveled into the Atlantic with a couple of folks from National Geographic. Wes wanted to photograph toothy barracuda as they fed. Easy enough. He also wanted to take video of frenetic mahi-mahis as they fed in the Gulf Stream where the water is infinitely deep and forbidding. Everything went swimmingly.
The next morning, after Wes and Spencer said their goodbyes, the expedition headed north to Palm Beach County and another trip into the Atlantic. Two miles east of the Boynton Inlet, three divers slipped over the side of the boat.
On the bottom, Wes signaled the other divers with his hands that he had run out of film and was returning to the boat. The other divers signaled their understanding and continued on. Nobody ever saw Wes alive again.
They found him lying on his back in 75 feet of water.
We can only guess what went through his mind as he drew his last breath. Did he conjure up the faces of his wife and children? Did he think "What's wrong with my equipment?" Perhaps he thought, "After everything I've done in my life, I can't believe I'm going to die in open water only 75 feet down. What a laugh."
We still are awaiting results of the autopsy.
• • •
A week ago, friends celebrated his life and mourned his death at his favorite place on the planet, Ginnie Springs. As gray clouds billowed above the Santa Fe River, and thunder rumbled over the trees, they gathered to say goodbye. They included dozens of people who had never ventured into a cave and one close diving friend who recently survived a tussle with a 12-foot alligator at Silver Springs.
There were prayers and many Wes stories, tears, laughter, barbecue, beer, angel food cakes, hymns and more laughter and tears. There was music, of course — John Prine's recording of It's a Big Old Goofy World seemed sadly appropriate — followed, inevitably, by a fireworks show Wes would have enjoyed.
As the night went on, and the mosquitoes started whining, and the frogs began croaking, someone brought out an 8-foot model of a Viking ship. Nathan, Wes' 22-year-old, swam with the ship out to the middle of Ginnie Springs and set it on fire.
It burned for hours, the flames licking the low branches of the oaks and the cypress trees. A 21st century Viking had received a perfect sendoff.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."