Read on for an excerpt from Drawn to the Deep: The Remarkable Underwater Explorations of Wes Skiles. As a longtime diver and underwater photographer, Wes Skiles saw the impacts of pollution and resource exploitation on Florida’s springs firsthand. He went head to head with scientists and government officials who dismissed his observations of water movement through the “Swiss-cheese” karst rock of the state’s underground aquifer. Throughout his life, he never gave up on his quest to protest the unchecked pumping and depletion of Florida’s groundwater.
From author Julie Hauserman:
“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. These big agricultural operations spread all this fertilizer on the ground, and it soaks in and wrecks the ecology that’s been there for millions of years. They have feedlots filled with manure. Housing developments with septic tanks and fertilized lawns and golf courses take a toll. And the state still allows sludge (treated sewage) to be spread across the land, even though we know it is extremely damaging to our fresh water supplies. Wes did what any concerned citizen would do—he went first to his local officials, and got basically nowhere with that. They approved all kinds of ag operations and projects in areas where the ground water later turned up polluted. He went to state-level officials and he had these incredible maps where he had drawn the aquifer’s flow so that when the water management district issued permits, they would have that knowledge of where the water flowed underground. He’d seen and measured the flow first hand, but since he wasn’t a credentialed scientist, they blew him off.
“The state still uses flawed models to estimate where groundwater will flow, and everyone knows the models are flawed. Yet they still base water use and development permits on it, which is ridiculous and shameful. I write about that in the book. Wes kept telling everyone that the groundwater flow was like a river—unpredictable. In some places it would rush and other places it would siphon, and all kinds of crazy movement that could move pollutants around. He kept saying that there had to be special models to do development or agriculture in these springs areas.
“Wes ended up working with water bottlers, which was controversial, but he knew that the bottlers at least had a keen interest in keeping the water clean. And they had political heft to fight these agricultural corporations and developers. He felt that water bottling was a better fit for springs country than polluting agricultural operations were. Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him to the statewide springs task force, and he worked on springs issues whenever he was in Florida and not off on some far-flung expedition. I have a line in the book that says: ‘He was speaking out. He was evolving from Cave Explorer to Cave Protector. It’s hard to say which environment would prove more hostile—dark, subterranean stone caverns or dark, subterranean Florida politics.'”
See how Wes Skiles first caught the water bug and came to love Florida’s cobalt springs in this excerpt from the book.
Wes’s first visit to North Florida’s Ginnie Spring is on a winter’s day in 1971. He is thirteen, and here on a special mission.
It’s a wild place then, and first he has to bushwhack through the thick green tangle that is Florida, spiderwebs hitting his eyes, bugs buzzing his ears, and prickers snagging his shins. Then he’s at the edge of a fifty-foot-wide swimming hole that looks like some Hollywood movie set of the mythical paradise Shangri-la.
The sun glints off a baby-powder-white sand bottom. Florida’s domed sky tints the pool impossibly blue. It’s so clear you can see everything—swimming fish, turtles, waving water plants, fallen tree branches; it’s as if there’s no water there. Below the water’s surface, outcroppings of pale craggy limestone shimmer, the prehistoric reef that is Florida’s bones.
Then the spring goes deeper and darker toward a shadowy cave entrance at its bottom. Swim into it, and the force of the water coming out of that cave will blow you back.
Cartoony cypress knees poke up around the spring’s forested edges, and in the upper branches, gray-green Spanish moss makes lacy veils. The spring empties to the Santa Fe River in a lovely sand-bottomed stream that’s lined with arching trees. Where the river meets the spring, there’s a visible line between the clear spring flow and the dark, tannin-stained river water.
When Wes looks into that reflecting spring, he knows with sudden certainty that he wants to do more than swim on its surface. He wants to go inside it.
His two companions have sternly warned against it. Wes is with his older brother, Jim, and the Skileses’ adult neighbor, Kent Markham. They’ve traveled here from Jacksonville, where they live in a low-slung middle-class neighborhood that is typical of Florida in the mid-twentieth century. Revolutions may have been unfolding around them—civil rights demonstrations, people protesting the Vietnam War, and the flowering 1960s counterculture—but in the Skiles family it was still a buttoned-up, God-and-country, Baptist church world. Wes and his brother Jim wore buzz cuts; big sister Shirley wore saddle shoes and bobby socks.
Their family life revolved around water. In those days, Jim Skiles remembers, “Mom not only drove us to the beach all the time, but I have vivid memories of walking out of junior high school at the end of the day, where the bus pickup was, and seeing Mom in her blue Valiant with three surfboards loaded on top of the car, waving, like, ‘Come on, the surf is good, let’s go surfing.’ She didn’t surf, but she was that good of a mom that she would load up our boards—and the boards were, of course, nine foot six inches. I mean, they were big longboards back then, you know? I was small enough I couldn’t even get the board on top of the car by myself. So yeah, that was the kind of mom she was, she constantly put us ahead of her. Wes was young, but I took Wes surfing with me, and Wes fell in love with surfing, too.”
Wes’s sister Shirley says: “The hardest thing was getting those boys out of the water. Mom and Dad would be giving them the evil eye, you know, ‘Now! Get out now!’”
When he reached driving age, Jim would load up surfboards and buddies in his slick black 1953 Ford Fairlane.
“One of the surfing trips, Wes comes running out. ‘I want to go! I want to go!’” Jim says. “And I’m thinking, Ugh. And I said, ‘All right, Wes, the only spot we have is if you can squat down on the floorboard of the car,’ and he goes, ‘Okay!’ I mean, it was only a twelve-minute ride to the beach or something. He actually got down and crouched on the floorboard under all of the guys’ legs. Wes got accustomed at an early age to be in tight spots.”
Wes was wild about the outdoors, but in school he was an unmotivated student and had trouble sitting still. He was athletic and might have dedicated himself to the surfer’s life, but the coincidence of living near Mr. Markham changed his trajectory.
Kent Markham was a teacher and, in his off time, an inventor. In the mid-1960s, just down the street from the Skiles house, he was creating an unusual device, a futuristic, portable, one-man “sport submarine.” Fashioned of plywood, metal tubing, fiberglass, and plastic, it looked like it belonged on the TV cartoon The Jetsons. The craft was space-age cool, and if you look at pictures of it today, you see a quirky artifact native to that particular time and place. Just 165 miles down the Atlantic coast, scientists and astronauts at Cape Canaveral were readying the Apollo ship to rocket men up into space and walk on the Moon for the very first time.
Powered by a marine trolling motor, the Markham Sport Submarine had delta wings, a pointed nose, and a pop-up clear bubble over the diver’s seat. Coolest of all, an onboard air tank and a battery pack made it possible for a diver to explore underwater without putting on a scuba mask. Markham called it a “semi-dry submarine,” because the user’s upper body remained dry but the legs and much of the torso were under water. The diver sat breathing comfortably in the air-filled chamber while watching the underwater scenery pass by through a clear “dashboard.”
Before Markham could unveil his invention, he had to field-test it. He turned to his enthusiastic young surfer neighbor, Jim Skiles, for that task. Jim was in junior high school and on his way to becoming a YMCA swim teacher and Jacksonville Beach lifeguard when Markham asked him and another teen from the neighborhood to help test-drive the Sport Submarine.
“I think he had two daughters who weren’t very interested,” Jim explains. “Wes and I were both water bugs. We were fascinated with Jacques Cousteau, and that was the very early days of Jacques Cousteau’s show on TV.” But Wes was too small to go on the submarine test, and he was crestfallen that he’d been left out of the adventure.
The test run went perfectly. Popular Mechanics did a cover story on Markham’s invention in June 1968 with the banner “Build This One-Man Sub!” Markham made his plans widely available. If you sent him $6, he’d mail you the details on how to build the Sport Submarine.
Once Markham finished his sub, he started working on something more portable to help scuba divers explore farther and faster through the depths.
By 1971, Wes had taken snorkeling classes at the YMCA pool and was so focused that he got his scuba diving certification at age thirteen. When Markham needed test drivers that year for his underwater scooters, he asked Wes and Jim to come along. Jim recalls:
“Because Wes was so disappointed that he didn’t get to go out on the initial trip on the submarine, Mr. Markham said, ‘Okay, I’m working on something else.’ And it was these little, handheld, early underwater scooters.”
In Jacksonville, Markham loaded up Wes, Jim, and the scooters and drove seventy-five miles inland to Ginnie Spring.
“It was wintertime,” Jim recalls, “and Mr. Markham had got us full wetsuits.”
Ginnie Spring is a constant 72 degrees year round. In the hot summer, the spring water seems freezing, and people squeal with shock when they jump in. In winter, the cold air makes the spring water seem warm.
“You would get down there with that scooter and start scooting along and having so much fun,” Jim recounts. “We didn’t have tanks on, and all of a sudden you go, ‘I’m out of breath!’ and have to surface. It was so neat to go out of that spring and swim to the river and do a U-turn back to the spring, because you go from this brown, cold river water and start going back through the spring, and it’s like you’re going through a warm bath.”
A Popular Mechanics photographer brought something that day: a Super 8 movie camera. He had made a special Plexiglas box to fit around the camera so he could shoot film underwater. (Up in New England, off Martha’s Vineyard, Steven Spielberg was also using a Plexiglas box around his camera to get the haunting swimming shots, half above water and half below, for the landmark shark horror movie Jaws.)
Wes was fascinated, and he recalled later:
The photographer had five or six cameras, and he went, “Here, take one of my Nikons and take some pictures.” The first thing I did was, I went in the cave. Everyone told me, “Don’t go in the cave,” but I went in the cave. I got this shot of [my brother] scootering past the entrance, and the shot came out really good. I was hooked from that point on.
That day at Ginnie Spring was the day Wes and the underwater world got hitched for life.
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.