“It’s easy to believe that humans evolved from the sea when you meet Wes Skiles. He was more at home underwater than above. Hold your breath as you read Julie Hauserman’s wonderful tale of a most unusual man. And remember, this tale is true.”—Bill Kurtis, announcer, Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!
“In this beautifully written, funny, moving biography, Hauserman takes readers on Wes Skiles’s extraordinary adventures under the water and on terra firma as he fought to document and save the wild places he loved. This is a magical book about a man who lived every day loving his art, his family, and the blue ball of planet Earth.”—Diane Roberts, author of Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and Other Florida Wildlife
“Wes Skiles’s photos and films are an inspiration to all of those who love nature—especially Florida’s hidden watery world. People of his passion and determination are, and always have been, a rare breed. Hauserman has successfully captured the essence of Skiles in this long-awaited biography.”—Michael Wisenbaker, archaeology supervisor, Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research
“Paints a picture of a soul driven to document the natural phenomena of this world and to share it with others for the betterment of planet Earth and its people. It will inspire and make you think.”—Shannon Switzer Swanson, National Geographic Explorer
Dan’s Cave looks like the entrance to the underworld. Two divers swim along a luminous blue-green passage, flashlights cutting through the water, a dark mass of stalactites suspended overhead. This is the breathtaking National Geographic cover photo taken by Wes Skiles (1958–2010), a top nature photographer who died in a diving accident before the issue was published.
Drawn to the Deep: The Remarkable Underwater Explorations of Wes Skiles celebrates the life of an extraordinary adventurer who braved extreme danger to share the hidden beauty and environmental truths of the planet with others. Skiles felt a pull to the water as a child, captivated by the cobalt springs of Florida. His passion for diving and his innovative camera techniques earned him assignments with National Geographic and Outside. He also took part in creating over a hundred films, many of which won international awards and acclaim.
Skiles was a self-taught expert on Florida’s freshwater springs and an outspoken advocate for their conservation. He went head to head with scientists and government officials who dismissed his firsthand observations of water movement through the “Swiss-cheese” karst rock of the underground aquifer. But he never gave up on his quest to disprove the prevailing scientific models or to protest what they allowed—the unchecked pumping and depletion of Florida’s groundwater.
Through interviews with Skiles’s friends and family, along with insights from his own journals, Julie Hauserman describes the escapades and achievements that characterized his life’s work. This book is the inspiring story of an explorer and activist who uncovered environmental abuses, advanced the field of underwater photography, and astonished the world with unprecedented views of the secret depths of the planet.
Julie Hauserman, an award-winning journalist, is editor-in-chief of the Florida Phoenix. She is a former national commentator for NPR’s Weekend Edition and a former capital bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg Times.
In this interview Julie Hauserman talks about her new book and Wes Skiles’s legacy.
What made you decide to write a biography on Wes Skiles?
An editor at University Press of Florida reached out and asked me to write it. I met Wes when I was a capital bureau reporter with the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) and I was writing about the pollution that huge agricultural operations—mostly dairies—were inflicting on Florida’s springs. Manure and fertilizer is pretty much the worst thing you can put on top of our incredibly valuable fresh water aquifer. Wes sounded the alarm about it in High Springs, and I was able to spread the story statewide. He was a great Floridian who explored the unknown reaches of our state, and when University Press reached out, I was eager to tell his amazing story.
How did Skiles first get involved with cave diving? Did photography and diving always go hand-in-hand for him?
Wes fell in love with Ginnie Springs on the Santa Fe River, outside Gainesville, when he was a small boy. He and his brother went there to help test-drive a new personal sport submarine that his Jacksonville neighbor invented and got published in Popular Mechanics. As soon as Wes saw that spring, he wanted to go inside it. What’s amazing is that he became one of the top photographers in the world by working in a place with no light. You have to remember that this is before digital photography. You had a finite number of frames on a roll of film, and you didn’t know what you captured until you got it developed later on. To make his earliest photographs of the underground spring caves, Wes tried his best to waterproof his camera and he used old-fashioned flash bulbs and flashlights wrapped in plastic. Later, when he had teams of people helping him, he used aircraft landing lights and positioned divers around the caves to light them. He was always inventing things.
What motivated Skiles to choose such a risky career?
He was just wired that way. In the book, I get into the neuroscience of risk; it’s dependent on certain chemical levels in the brain. But the bottom line is that we’ve always had these risk-takers who move humanity forward. We have the folks who set out to cross the oceans or climb mountain ranges or fly to the moon or, like Wes, swim inside the planet. Most cave divers are clannish and secretive because there’s a certain prejudice about them. People say that they are crazy, and most people only hear about them when they die. What I try to show in the book is that these cave divers are explorers just like astronauts, and this notion that they are “crazy” for the most part isn’t accurate. These missions are carefully planned and executed, just like a space mission. As a kid, Wes loved watching the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. He was the Star Trek nerd who wanted to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” And he did.
Skiles traveled all over the world to explore underwater caves. What was his favorite cave diving spot?
I think that would be hard to say. He loved the springs country where he lived, in the area around Gainesville and High Springs and Tallahassee. That was his backyard playground and the territory of his group of diving buddies that were nicknamed the Mole Tribe. They would tromp through the woods and squeeze into these creepy looking holes in the limestone, hoping to find a cave system no one had explored yet. As a professional explorer, he dove under frigid icebergs in Antarctica, into underwater caves hidden in the Australian outback desert, through spindly-looking stalactites under the Bahamas, rappelled into truly terrifying deep caverns in Mexico—you name it. He loved the chase. I’d say Wes’s favorite spot was the one he knew no one had ever explored before and the thrill of knowing he was the first to see it.
As someone who traveled through Florida’s springs, how aware was Skiles of the impacts pollution and commercialization had on it, and how did this change his photography style?
Wes was appalled by what happened to our springs. I mean they were swimming-pool blue with white sandy bottoms when he started diving in them. While swimming inside the planet, he started seeing signs of pollution from above—algae and goo that covered the spring floors and cave walls. He was one of the few divers who climbed out of the caves and told people what was happening from the pollution.
Despite the many dangers he faced while cave diving, Skiles passed away during a routine ascent. How did the diving community react to his sudden passing?
Everyone was shocked of course. His death in 2010 at age 52 remains controversial. Many people believe it was a problem with a rebreather, which is a piece of equipment that recycles a diver’s own breath so they don’t have to use air tanks. The coroner ruled his death as a drowning, which didn’t explain much. I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened. But one thing is sure—he died doing what he loved. I like to believe he just passed out and never knew what was happening.
You had access to Skiles’s diving journal; what insights into his personality did it give you?
Wes’s journals were really cool, filled with little hand-drawn maps of caves he was exploring and illustrations of his adventures through the decades all over the world. For a biographer, it was a treasure trove of insight. It’s one thing to interview other people who were with Wes on expeditions, and another thing to read his personal recollections. It was challenging figuring out how to handle the material. I started this biography not long after his death, and his office in High Springs was still as he left it, with all the cameras and all of his papers and maps. Wes’s wife, Terri, and I worked very closely on this project. To work with the material in Wes’s journals, I sat in his empty office in High Springs by myself, reading the passages into a voice recorder and then later transcribing them. In some passages, he seems blasé about these death-defying adventures; other times he’s unsure of himself and restless, and sometimes he’s writing rough drafts of articles that will later be published in adventure magazines. It was a very intimate experience going through those pages. It made me wish he was still on the planet, exploring even more. I did find myself in tears more than once.
Have you ever gone cave diving before?
No! I am not a person wired for risk. A lot of the cave divers I interviewed said they’ve always been comfortable in confined spaces. As kids they liked to climb into cabinets and whatnot. They feel embraced in the womb-like caves. I like to camp at the springs and snorkel and kayak and swim, but diving? No. I am your friendly above-ground observer. As I write in the book, “Face it: there is just a visceral difference between those of us who would swim down into a stony hole in the bottom of a dark river and those of us who would not.”
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I hope Wes’s story will spark conversations and investigations into what’s happening with our water supply. I know that’s what Wes would have wanted. He spent his career trying to educate people—especially the younger generation who saw his Water’s Journey films in their classrooms—about how to keep our fresh water clean. I hope to spread that message.
What are you working on next?
I’ve recently gone back into journalism after 15 years of being a freelancer and political activist. I’ve been named editor-in-chief of a new progressive statewide news operation called the Florida Phoenix. We are a non-profit that’s part of a national effort—the State Newsroom Project—to fill the void caused by corporate news operations cutting their state capital bureaus to squeeze out more profits. So much of what affects people in their daily lives happens at the state level. There’s a lot of shady influence peddling that goes on and needs to be exposed. It is much easier to get nefarious things done in state legislatures and agencies than in Congress, so we really need watchdog reporters on the scene. We’ve got some terrific reporters, and we’ll be digging into news you need to know about Florida: How are your tax dollars being spent? Who is influencing the people who make decisions on your behalf? We want to report for everyone who believes we should have clean water and air, quality public education, affordable healthcare, human rights, equality, and a fair system of political representation. Our elected leaders should be responsive to the people who elect them and not to powerful corporations and monied interest groups who act in self-interest rather than for the public good.