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 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."