National Geographic

Wes Skiles, Pioneering Adventure Photographer, Dies At 52

Wes Skiles prepares to film Blue Hole Vortex i i

Wes Skiles prepares to film Blue Hole Vortex Luis Lamar hide caption

itoggle caption Luis Lamar
Wes Skiles prepares to film Blue Hole Vortex

Wes Skiles prepares to film Blue Hole Vortex

Luis Lamar

This past January, underwater photographer Wes Skiles stopped by to show me a few photos. He had just finished an assignment in the Bahamas for a National Geographic story, and our conversation ran the gamut. Be it poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas, photography or conservation, Skiles was excited about everything.

His story is now on the cover of National Geographic's August issue. It contains the magazine's second-ever tear-out, fold-out photograph. The editor-in-chief even wrote his editor's note about it. But Skiles did not have the chance to enjoy the recognition. He died tragically Wednesday while diving off the coast of Florida, at age 52. As of Thursday, the details of the accident were unknown.

  • A diver navigates a stalagmite forest in Dan's Cave on Abaco Island. One fin kick could shatter mineral formations tens of thousands of years old.
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    A diver navigates a stalagmite forest in Dan's Cave on Abaco Island. One fin kick could shatter mineral formations tens of thousands of years old.
    Photos by Wes Skiles/National Geographic/National Geographic
  • An archaeologist lifts a centuries-old Lucayan Indian skull from a  site 110 feet down into Sanctuary Blue Hole on Andros Island.
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    An archaeologist lifts a centuries-old Lucayan Indian skull from a site 110 feet down into Sanctuary Blue Hole on Andros Island.
    Wes Skiles/National Geographic
  • Divers illuminate a passage in Stargate, a blue hole on Andros Island.
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    Divers illuminate a passage in Stargate, a blue hole on Andros Island.
    Wes Skiles/National Geographic
  • Expedition leader and anthropologist Kenny Broad descends through a bacterial layer in Sawmill Sink.
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    Expedition leader and anthropologist Kenny Broad descends through a bacterial layer in Sawmill Sink.
    Wes Skiles/National Geographic
  • Kenny Broad and Brian Kakuk surface after multiple dives in Sawmill Sink. "It's an alien world down there," says Broad, "that keeps pushing us beyond our dreams."
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    Kenny Broad and Brian Kakuk surface after multiple dives in Sawmill Sink. "It's an alien world down there," says Broad, "that keeps pushing us beyond our dreams."
    Wes Skiles/National Geographic
  • Kenny Broad fights to get to the surface, his air bubbles forced down by the current in a blue hole on Abaco.
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    Kenny Broad fights to get to the surface, his air bubbles forced down by the current in a blue hole on Abaco.
    Wes Skiles/National Geographic
  • Wes Skiles described the "insanely dangerous vortex in Chimney Blue Hole off Grand Bahama. "All of a sudden, it's got you." Like a giant bathtub drain, it sucks down millions of gallons when the tide comes in. "It's like going over a waterfall — there's no escape."
    Hide caption
    Wes Skiles described the "insanely dangerous vortex in Chimney Blue Hole off Grand Bahama. "All of a sudden, it's got you." Like a giant bathtub drain, it sucks down millions of gallons when the tide comes in. "It's like going over a waterfall — there's no escape."
    Wes Skiles/National Geographic
  • The Cascade Room, some 80 feet beneath the surface, leads divers deeper into Dan's Cave on Abaco Island.
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    The Cascade Room, some 80 feet beneath the surface, leads divers deeper into Dan's Cave on Abaco Island.
    Panorama composed of three images/National Geographic

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A native of Florida, Skiles began diving at age 8. "I took to the water quite like a fish," he said. In fact, he never seemed to be on land. Even 44 years after that first dive, Skiles was as enthralled as ever by his work. He was a pioneering underwater cinematographer and still photographer, often working with National Geographic and scientific research teams to explore the inaccessible, diving deep to bring Earth's hidden treasures to surface.

Although each dive entailed a life risk, his photos alone explain the incessant returns. There was an obvious thrill, but also a certain majesty which only Skiles and a select, skilled few could experience. "I'm very appreciative of the fact that I'm in a very niche world that is about true exploration and discovery," he said. His hope, he continued, was to make people care more about the places he loved.

"Everything we do on the Earth's surface has this real direct connection to the water beneath our feet," Skiles concluded. "We can do better. And I hope to do a story that shows directly that connection."

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