>"What took y'all so long?" Wes Skiles asked jokingly. I couldn't respond. Wes was the only one in the cave with underwater transmit capability. The rest of us could only listen. That was appropriate since Wes was director of underwater cinematography for this MacGillivray Freeman Films IMAX feature, Journey Into Amazing Caves. I didn't need to respond. My job was to do exactly what Wes directed. That was also appropriate. What Wes was doing to illuminate and capture the beauty of this underwater cave demonstrated genius that left me humbled and in awe.
>Under Wes' direction, his team of cave divers had drilled down through 45 feet of solid rock so that light cables could be pushed through narrow holes into the Dos Ojos cave. Then Wes had positioned a dozen huge movie lights on stands throughout the 100-foot diameter subterranean room. Once the generators were switched on, the room was flooded by more than 20,000 watts of light revealing crystalline structures so beautiful and so delicate that it literally brought tears to my eyes.
>After the 3-minute IMAX film load was exhausted, Lance and I left the cathedral-like room and began our long swim out of the cave to reload the camera. As we swam, we could hear Wes' Southern drawl regaling his crew with jokes and stories as the team repositioned the lights for the next sequence. To say his crew idolized Wes is perhaps not strong enough. I think they loved him.
>Swimming down the long tunnel, I would occasionally look back at the brilliant blue light radiating from the end of the tunnel. Sometimes I could see Wes hovering against the light silhouetted in radiance as he directed his team.
>I will never again hear or use the word "cave" without thinking of Wes Skiles.
— Howard Hall, September 2010
>It was July 21, 2010. Wes was working with a crew photographing bull sharks. Just the day before, he'd been down in the Florida Keys to do some pick-up shots for a National Geographic television special he'd been contracted to shoot, ironically titled Speed Kills.
>Traditionally our "Shooter" series involves an interview with the photographers, hearing first-hand about their inspirations and accomplishments. To my great regret, I'll never have that conversation with Wes. His wife, Terri Skiles, very graciously agreed to speak for Wes and share in his stead his brilliant still photographs with us.
>SF// Thanks for sharing your memories of Wes. I guess the best place to begin is the start of your life together. How did you meet Wes?
>TS// We met in 1979 in Jacksonville, Fla. I'd just graduated from Florida State University and my parents were transferred to the naval base there. I got a part-time job in a camera store while looking for a more permanent job and met Wes when he came in to pay off a camera he'd left on layaway. He flirted a little and asked me out on a date right away, but at first I said no, thinking him far too full of himself. But then I got to know him and saw beyond the bluster. We had that first date, and I fell in love immediately. We were married in 1981, and we now have a son, Nathan, 23, and a daughter, Tessa, who is 17.
>In those very early years we ran the Branford Dive Shop, north of Gainesville, and of course, we continued to dive and explore all the freshwater springs and cave systems around there.
>SF// I know from guys like Spencer Slate, who also lived in Jacksonville during those years, that Wes was already a dive prodigy. In fact, Slate tells the story of his first meeting when Wes was a kid of 17; Wes was already the guy they called on to retrieve the bodies of divers who died in the area's deep cave systems. How did he get so accomplished so young?
>TS// First of all, Wes had been around diving the caves and springs for some time. He got certified when he was just 13, and he had a neighbor, Kent Markham, who built underwater scooters. Wes and his brother, Jim, had a blast as kids testing those scooters in the nearby springs, but I think what transformed him was those who mentored him, especially Sheck Exley. (Editor's note: Sheck Exley literally wrote the book on cave diving, authoring Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival and setting the then world record in 1989 for deep cave penetration at 10,444 feet. He was also a multiple world-record holder in deep diving on both air and mixed gases. He died April 6, 1994, in an attempt to break his own deep dive record and exceed 1,000 feet.) Sheck brought Wes to the heavy-duty part of underwater cave exploration … surveying cave passages and creating maps of caves no one had ever seen before.
>SF// So how did he get into photography?
>TS// Both he and Jim were into photography from a very early age. They were surfers and shot 8mm movies of each other and created films of themselves. Also, Wes' first camera was a Brownie that his grandfather had given him, so his first images were with that sophisticated camera! Wes had the perfect eye for photographic compositions, in my humble opinion. His passion toward photography was always present.
>Wes started Karst Environmental Services with partner Pete Butt to help landowners define the flow path to their waters. Before long, he saw a way to bring his creative eye to photography as well and started a companion business, Karst Productions, for the stills and videos he loved to take.
>TS// I don't know that it really mattered much to Wes whether he was shooting stills or video. He just loved the places he was going, the adventure and being the guy who came home with the shot. By 2002 he was shooting high-definition video for a series of four hour-long DVDs called "Water's Journey" for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the different water management districts as well as Florida's Department of Education and PBS.
>Lighting underwater caves systems became a specialty for Wes, and he was probably the best in the world at it. He actually designed some of the very early lights used in cave videos.
>TS// Yes, absolutely! Wes was often on expeditions, whether to the Yucatan for some big cenote project, or off to Fiji, Africa or the Red Sea. Actually, several of these expeditions went on for months at a time. I remember him leaving from New Zealand on an icebreaker to travel to Antarctica to photograph and film a giant mass of ice that had broken off the continent. This was back in the year 2000 and probably one of the early stories about global warming.
>TS// Not really. I was a Navy brat, and my parents taught me well about time spent away from home. I most often stayed home with the kids, but sometimes we would go on expeditions together.
>As for the hazard, I really never worried much. I knew Wes had the skills and experience to be safe, even though others might have considered what he was doing quite extreme. Actually, I worried a lot more about him when he went horseback riding or rode his motorcycle. Diving was something he knew, and he always felt he was in control of the variables.
>SF// Wes was a master of diving technology, he had to be for the places he went and the length of time he stayed underwater to perform his craft. How did he develop his expertise?
>TS// The fact that Wes died while using a rebreather will likely be a source of speculation for some time, but even today I don't know exactly what caused Wes' death. I do know the general details of his 70-foot dive, but he was alone when he died, on his way back to the boat to service his camera.
>I can't postulate why he died, but I know he loved to live. He loved his friends, and they gathered around him like moths to a flame. He loved fireworks and bonfires and to laugh and to throw a great party. He loved to explore and to dive and to shoot photos and movies. He loved his family. And I loved living life through his adventures.
>Wes Skiles was the best there ever was at documenting the rare and wonderful underwater cave and cavern systems of the world. He was a technological innovator and a brilliantly creative image-maker. He was a passionate advocate for Divers Alert Network® and one of our most high-profile inspirations for both recreational and scientific scuba diving. His friends, his family and the whole dive community mourn his loss, yet we celebrate his many significant achievements. — Stephen Frink