HIGH SPRINGS — Photographer Wes Skiles, whose work will soon grace the cover of the August 2010 National Geographic, loved water and braved countless dangers filming it.
He survived hurricanes, escaped collapsing caves and fended off sharks.
Peers compared him to Jacques Cousteau, another undersea photographer and environmentalist.
Mr. Skiles, an Alachua County adventurer with an international reputation, died Wednesday in a diving accident off Boynton Beach. He was 52. The cause of his death is unknown.
"He was the consummate professional who could go into the most difficult places that had never been explored before," said Chris Johns, National Geographic's editor in chief. "He could not only explore them, but come back with amazing photographs that captured the majesty of these places, places no one had seen before."
He made scores of films, including more than a dozen for major networks such as PBS. He directed the IMAX film Journey Into Amazing Caves, which takes viewers to Greenland and Mexico; and photographed underwater caves in Brazil, Puerto Rico and Australia.
In 2001, he was part of the first expedition to film the deep insides of antarctic icebergs. His current National Geographic cover story on the "blue holes of the Bahamas" depicts eerie halls of stalagmites, a cave shrimp you can see through, and an "insanely dangerous" vortex in Chimney Blue Hole off Grand Bahama.
"All of a sudden, it's got you," Mr. Skiles told the magazine. "… There's no escape." A video version of the story will appear on the PBS show Nova.
Mr. Skiles devoted as much energy to saving waterways, particularly in Florida, as he did photographing them. As a member of the Florida Springs Task Force, he led workshops in Hernando and Alachua counties on Florida's vanishing springs due to wastes and chemicals in the soil.
"He was out front all the way in springs protection," said Jim Stevenson, a former Department of Environmental Protection official and task force director, now retired.
Said Gainesville photographer John Moran: "Wes helped us appreciate that there is no 'away' when we throw our stuff away. What we put in the ground ends up in the aquifer."
For all of his knowledge, Mr. Skiles had few teachers. He never attended college, joking instead that he had matriculated through the "school of life" with a degree in "curiology."
He got his business training running a diving business in Haiti, freelancing and founding Karst Productions, which sells his prints and DVDs, many about Florida's rivers and wetlands.
Mr. Skiles was well aware that the water he revered also contained dangers. "(Danger) didn't need to be articulated because it so permeated the undergirding reality of that kind of work," Moran said. "Wes and his associates were involved in countless recoveries of other divers — the operative word being 'recoveries,' not rescues, because there was nothing more they could do."
He was working on a project Wednesday for National Geographic, filming a reef off Boynton Beach. According to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, Mr. Skiles motioned to other divers that he was surfacing because he was out of film.
But as the other divers surfaced several minutes later, they saw Mr. Skiles motionless on the ocean floor. He was given CPR in the boat and taken to St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach, where he was pronounced dead.
Terri Skiles said she was too distraught on Thursday to talk about her husband. The family released a short statement, which mentioned that Mr. Skiles was excited about his work appearing on the next National Geographic cover. An autopsy is pending.
The staff at the magazine's Washington, D.C., headquarters has had a hard time accepting that a man who survived high seas and caves should die on a calm summer day in open water.
"Wes never was a cowboy," said Johns. "He was always thoughtful, extremely careful and responsible. This just came as a complete shock. We are devastated here."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.