National Geographic loses ‘insatiable’ photographer |

National Geographic loses ‘insatiable’ photographer

Aaron Hedge
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – As an ongoing scientific study of a vast system of underwater caves funded by the National Geographic Society started to yield findings, researchers and divers, including freelance photographer Wes Skiles, presented what they had discovered to the society’s magazine editors.

After the presentation, which happened more than a year ago, photo editor Sadie Quarrier approached Skiles and said the magazine wanted to do a story on the caves, called Blue Holes, which litter the Bahamas.

And for its August 2010 issue, Skiles, along with writer Andrew Todhunter, produced what National Geographic Magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns hailed as an incredibly poignant piece of journalism, a “major production” to add to the magazine’s rich history of telling the world about itself.

But in an unexpected blow to the publication’s staff, editors learned last week that Skiles, 52, died last week in a Florida diving accident that is being investigated by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office

Johns, who will present in Skiles’ place Tuesday at the Aspen Environment Forum, said the photographer will be sorely missed as one of the most versatile journalists in the life of the profession.

Skiles’ work spanned two very difficult skills in telling the stories of the underwater world: photography and film.

“I really don’t know anyone who can do what Wes did in the world,” Johns said.

Skiles’ actions were based on firm reporting, Johns said: “Wes’ work is grounded in solid science.”

If Johns’ testimony is any indication, it seems that Skiles’ passion for science and good journalism did not die along with him. During an interview Monday, Johns referred to Skiles only once in the past tense.

“Wes has got the thing that will help anybody in this world, and that’s an insatiable curiosity,” said Johns, who said he met Skiles in the magazine’s office. He came across as a person who never wanted to do the type of dangerous reporting and photography that eventually claimed his life, Johns said.

But he was a photographer who had his journalistic values grounded strongly in field work, and Johns said he immediately noticed that Skiles had the grit to do great work in scientific reporting and photography – a person who stayed calm under the unrelenting danger and pressure that is inherent in documenting worlds that are meant to be inaccessible to man.

“He’s the kind of guy you want to have in the foxhole with you,” Johns said.

And the environments he worked in were certainly dangerous.

In Todhunter’s vivid editorial account of the research, he describes the sickening effects of the toxic gases that invade divers’ suits at a certain depth in the underground caves that are so well documented in the magazine. Headaches, nausea, itching, dizziness and general disorientation are a few of the side effects.

But this, along with a number of other terrifying environments, is where Skiles made his livelihood, where he thrived.

One photograph in the August story shows a massive, violent whirlpool at the top of one of the caves – a deadly phenomenon one might see in a marine horror flick.

“If you get caught … you could go down a couple hundred feet in a couple seconds,” Johns said of the whirlpool.

Danger is a commonplace element in the lives of National Geographic reporters and photographers, Johns said, but the magazine has been fortunate in the relatively few number of deaths in its history. Johns didn’t say how many have been killed on assignment for the publication.

The film Skiles produced for the project will be shown Tuesday on The Aspen Institute’s campus at 8 p.m.

Johns said that Skiles, a dedicated conservationist, would likely have talked during the session about the environmental danger the caves face: For years, they have been trash deposits for surrounding communities – a practice that endangers the freshwater supply for islanders as rain water pools at the top of salt water.