Connect with us

Cave

Stoned: The Adventures of Wes Skiles and the US Deep Caving Team

Published

on

Text by Bill Stone, July 28, 2010. Images from Wes Skiles courtesy of the United States Deep Cave Diving team. Header image by Wes Skiles: Looking up towards the entrance of Wakulla Springs with habitat in view. A photo from this series was used in a Rolex ad featuring Bill Stone.

It was in the fall of 1980 that I first met Wes Skiles. I had driven down to Jacksonville non-stop from Maryland to continue training in deep diving with Sheck Exley.  Sheck was teaching me how to dive deep on air for an expedition I had planned for 1981 to the San Agustin sump in Mexico.  He recommended I pick up a set of twin 104s for work in Florida and went so far as to recommend a dive shop where I could get them:  The Aquifer Dive Center in Jacksonville.  It happened to be the dive shop owned by Clark Pitcairn, who was Sheck’s partner at the time on several pioneering, long stage dives.  Wes worked for Clark and split his time equally between surfing and cave diving – getting off once a week on Wednesday evenings with Clark to dive a spring somewhere or the other in the Wild West that was spring diving in north Florida in those days.  

So, at that time, Wes was a 23-year-old cave diving surfer bum, doing anything for a weekly cave diving fix and catching the next wave.  Like several of us who were lucky enough in that era, Wes had the good fortune of being an apprentice to Sheck Exley.  But Wes went further than most of us and became Sheck’s protégé—a redneck protégé with a wicked sense of humor.

The Wakulla Project 1987

Wes is geared up and ready to rock the house. Notice the array of lights! Photo courtesy of the USDCT
The Air Products trailer held more than 2124 kl/75,000 cf of heliox and 850 kl/30,000 cf of oxygen. Photo by Wes Skiles
Tricked out AquaZepp Scooters were the predominant DPV of the day because of their depth capability. Photo by Wes Skiles
Wakulla divers in cave passage. Photo by Wes Skiles 
Diver with Mastodon bone discovered at Wakulla. Photo by Wes Skiles
The Wakulla project decompression habitat, where divers conducted most of their decompression. On board controls permitted up to six divers to ascend from 70 feet depth to the surface.  Photo by Carl Ganter, courtesy of National Geographic Society.
Paul Deloach (L) and Sheck Exley decompressing in the habitat. Photo by Wes Skiles. 
Wes Skiles and Clark Pitcairn before the push on C-Tunnel. Photo by Bill Stone.
Stone inspects the habitat at 60 feet during second test dive of FRED, the Cis-Lunar MK 1. Photo by Noel Sloan
Wes getting ready to fly Stone’s 80 kg/176 lbs fully-redundant “Failsafe Rebreather For Exploration Diving” (F.R.E.D.)
“The Wakulla Springs Project” book by William C. Stone: A classic must-read! 
Wakulla 1987 Team. Wes smack in the middle of it.

I lost track of Wes until the fall of 1987 when an unusual series of events led to us being granted a three-month permit to explore Wakulla Springs.  By that time, Wes was well known as one of Florida’s top cave divers, and there was little question he would be involved with the project.  So was National Geographic.  We had set up our headquarters in the small concession stand building left over from when Wakulla was a private resort.  

The expedition was short on cash, and we had let this fact be known to our sponsors at National Geographic.  At that time, the best known underwater photographer at National Geographic was Emory Kristoff.  Not long after sending the emergency note to NGS, Wes and I were working on gear together in the concession stand when came a knock on the door.  Wes went and answered it, and there, in a trench coat in the rain, was Emory Kristoff. He walked in and, doing his best James Cagney impersonation, said, “Da boys in DC heard your message, so dey sent me to deliver the money.” Whereupon he opened the trench coat and slapped a wad of $3,000 on the table. Then he turned to Wes and said, “Hey, kid, I hear you knows how to run a camera underwater?”

And Wes was stumbling for words. So Kristoff continued, “Well, de boys in de basement at 17th & M sent me with another present for yuz.” And he had his assistant outside bring in several boxes with $20,000 worth of Benthos deep submersible camera gear. He and Wes then disappeared for some time together and the next thing we saw was this tank sled that bolted under an Aqua Zepp carrying all this camera gear.  With Emory’s encouragement, Wes set off on a mission—one that would become his life’s mantra—to get a series of powerful images that would turn heads at NGS.  He got them, but the story got bumped because of the Centennial series of stories that came out that year.  His shot, “Phantoms of the Cube Room,” taken in Sally Ward, and other shots of divers riding Aqua Zepps into the Grand Canyon of Wakulla—suspended in blackness as if flying in space—became the center pieces of the book that was written about the project.  That book, propelled by Wes’s stunning photos, was one of the principal catalysts of what later became known as the “Technical Diving Revolution.”


  • Buddy Dive Bonaire

One morning at Wakulla in the fall of 1987, we were having our usual pre-mission planning discussion at the lodge.  Sitting in the sun room were Sheck, Paul Heinerth, Clark Pitcairn, Paul DeLoach, John Zumrick, Mary Ellen Eckhoff, Tom Morris, Wes and me.  We were strategizing who was going to do what and when.  Suddenly Wes got this look of apprehension on his face and Sheck said, “Wes, is there something wrong with this plan?” And Wes, yelling over his shoulder as he ran out the door, said “Oh crap ! My tanks !!”  And we all saw him running down the hill to the springs where we had one of several compressors set up.  Wes had put an empty set of twin 104s on charge, and since it was going to take a long time to pump, he had come up to the meeting,which had lasted longer than expected.  When he returned, he had this sheepish grin on his face.  Sheck, in his usual understated way, said, “I guess you over pumped them?”  Wes, in his equally laconic way, said, “Well, I guess you’d like to say I hydro’d them. But since they didn’t explode, I figured, hell, why not keep the extra gas for a better safety margin today ?” There was a moment of True Wes.

Leo Dickinson was also there in 1987, filming a documentary with Wes’s help for HTV Britain.  Following the longest exploration dive of the project—almost 1,400 meters from the entrance in B Tunnel—Leo interviewed Wes and said (when Wes had just turned 30), “Do you feel you’ll be able to keep this up— to continue exploring”?   And Wes responded, on film, “As I get older, I know things will become more difficult, but we’ll just change that with technology,” and keep on diving.  

San Agustin Expedition 1994

The 1994 San Agustin Expedition team

There was a long gap of time before I saw Wes again. It was Thanksgiving 1993, and we were testing the Cis-Lunar Mk4 in Ginny Springs before a planned expedition to Huautla in the spring of 1994.  Wes and I went on a dive together, both with Mk4s, to the Hinckle restriction in Devil’s Eye and then coasted out.  When we got to the entrance, and it came time for decompression, Wes told me he was going to use his normal air dive computer, since he did not yet trust the decompression algorithm that we had recently installed on the Mk4.  I said, “OK,” and proceeded to surface 45 minutes ahead of Wes.  He later explained that due to earlier decompression incidents he had to be conservative.  I respected that decision as a sign of controlled discipline—something both of us had learned well from Exley.

The next time I saw Wes was at a barbecue at Woody Jasper’s in February 1994.  It was a send-off party for two important expeditions that spring—for Sheck and Jim Bowden’s push on Zacaton—and for our project to Huautla.  Late that evening, Wes broke out some videos he and Kenny Broad had collaborated on and with a tongue-in-cheek smile, warned us to learn from these videos so we would not make the same mistakes on the upcoming projects.  One was the infamous “Jacque Eye-Ear” escapade in which a famous French free diver (played by Kenny) attempted to swim from Devil’s Eye to Devil’s Ear on one breath; and the second one “Captain Safety”—an insane underwater horror flick with monsters with glowing eyes and Aqua Zepps that flew upside down.  Both used novel points-of-view that were early indicators of Wes’s genius behind a camera.  His later artistic work “Little Devils” had a powerful visceral aura to it.  Wes, understanding the power of the film, enjoyed pointing out that a certain portion of his growing public audiences seemed to leave halfway through a screening of “Little Devils” out of sheer claustrophobic anxiety.  

Explorers Jim King, Olivier Isler, Bill Stone with a Cis-Lunar Mk-4R rebreather at Jackson Blue, preparing for Wakulla 2.

A few months later, during much sadder times following the loss of Sheck in Zacaton and our Scottish teammate Ian Rolland in San Agustin, Wes came to Huautla. He arrived like the cavalry on a white horse— instilling new enthusiasm to a demoralized team.  He was on official assignment from National Geographic and was determined to capture on film the essence of the undertaking and to buoy the spirits of those who chose to continue on. He succeeded in both. He knew exactly what he needed to get, and I watched as he spent 27 rolls of film and more than a week hanging on rope to get one picture of the entrance to the Sotano de San Agustin that he knew was a keeper. He did that 15 more times in other places and the result was the National Geographic story on the expedition printed in September 1995.  I owe a great debt of gratitude to Wes for doing that.  Had he not brought the team back together, it is doubtful we would have gone on to continue exploration beyond the San Agustin sump.

Wakulla 2 (1998-99)

The saturation system mounted on the floating barge. Bill Stone designed and built the A-Frame hoist to lower the transfer capsule up & down. Photo by Jim King.
Wes Skiles’ lighting crew of Tom Morris, Mark and Annette Long shooting me in the Grand Canyon—the first big room that sits beneath the Wakulla Lodge Dining Room. The lights, called “Great Balls of Fire” were borrowed from National Geographic. They were originally made for the MIR pilots on the Titanic, but the Russians were scared they would burn out someone’s retinas. They lit up the room like never before. Photo by Wes Skiles.
Two support divers at the transfer capsule. A typical mission was five hours bottom time at 92m/300 f. Decompression would begin at 80m/260 f. Divers would strip off their gear with the help of support divers and enter the transfer capsule at 33m/110 f, 10-11 hours into the dive. The divers would remain in the capsule for 10+ hours of deco. The capsule was hoisted to the surface under pressure and locked into the deco habitat. The team downloaded dive profiles from the rebreathers and customized the remaining deco. Photo by Wes Skiles
Jill Heinerth piloting the Digital Wall Mapper trailed by Paul Heinerth with the transfer capsule behind them. Photo by Wes Skiles
Jill Heinerth flying the Digital Wall Mapper. Photo by Wes Skiles
Wakulla 2 Cube Room. Photo by Chris Brown
Wakulla 2 Team, selfie by Wes Skiles

I had the privilege of working with Wes again in 1999 at Wakulla Springs. This time he had a much more mature style and a crew of six working for him.  But he carried that same gleam of excitement in his eye to be there where it was happening and the same determination to get the shot. He was now a regular with National Geographic, and his footage was at the heart of the hour-long documentary “Mapping the Labyrinth” that captured the essence of the effort to build the first 3-D cave map.  I enjoyed the frequent evening campfires we had at Indian Springs—where the team was based for that project—with Wes telling tales of his upcoming projects.

Over the next decade, I did not see Wes much.  But during this time, his reputation, his catalog of underwater films, and his print articles continued to grow to where he achieved worldwide recognition.  He even occasionally stuck little jokes into his films to tease friends, like the hand-held sonar cave mapper in “The Cave.”  I could see that wide “Wes grin” on the other side of the email as he wrote to me about that scene.

The day before Wes died, USA Today ran a major story on Wes, Kenny Broad, Brian Kakuk, Jill Heinerth, and their recent blue holes expedition to the Bahamas.  The August 2010 issue of National Geographic Magazine boasted what may be Wes’s most stunning image ever on the cover, followed by a three-page fold out inside.  He went out at the top of his game. The best underwater photographer on this planet. 

I would have worked with Wes anywhere.  Under any conditions.  On this planet or off it.  He was a true expeditionary man—a true brother in exploration.  If there is life after death or existence in a parallel dimension, I know that Wes is out there now, showing them how to make perfect pictures. Carry on brother.

To explore more stories, documentaries, videos and articles by and about Wes Skiles click here: Celebrating Wes Skiles


William C. “Bill” Stone, PhD, P.E. is the CEO of  Stone Aerospace, Inc. and Sunfish, Inc., both based in Del Valle, TX. He is an internationally acclaimed cave explorer and the president of the United States Deep Caving Team. 

Cave

Karen van den Oever Continues to Push the Depth at Bushmansgat: Her New Record—246m

Karen van den Oever recently broke her own world cave diving depth record by a little more than 10m/33 ft at Bushmansgat cave in South Africa. The S.African cave diver conducted the 8 hour 14 min high-altitude dive on open circuit scuba, breathing trimix 4/90 bottom mix, and suffered mild High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS). Here former world depth record holder, Nuno Gomes who was van den Oever’s cave instructor, offers the details of her record setting dive along with a short history of the women’s depth records.

Published

on

By

By Nuno Gomes. Images courtesy of Karen van den Ever.

Karen van den Oever and her husband Francois Bain

Karen van den Oever, from Johannesburg, South Africa, has dived to a depth of 246.65 m/809 ft. This is equivalent to a dive to a depth of 296 m/971 ft when corrected for an altitude of 1550 m/5,085 ft above sea level. The dive was conducted on October 27, 2022, in Bushmansgat cave, South Africa, and is a new women’s world record cave dive. Karen bettered her own previous world record to a depth of 236.04m/770 ft  (283 m/924 ft correcting for altitude), also accomplished at Bushmansgat cave in 2021.

I actually felt really good after the dive, a little tired but overall, quite good. I felt much better after this dive than the previous one. I’m happy that the dive went well, just thinking about what comes next. I have no definite plans going forward, we are looking into diving some of the caves in Namibia and also exploring some of the caves not yet dived in Zambia but no concrete plans yet.”—Karen van den Oever

Karen and Theo van Eeden, with the signed tag.

Women have been making record deep dives for quite some time. Back in 1981, one of the first deep diving records was made by Sheck Exley’s wife, Mary Ellen Eckhoff (USA). She used a dive propulsion vehicle (DPV) to travel into Wakulla Springs cave, as well as staged tanks for decompression purposes. Mary Ellen dived on open circuit, together with Paul DeLoach and John Zumrick, and they reached a distance of 363 m/1192 ft and a depth of 80 m/260 ft, which was a major dive at the time.

In 1996, Dr. Ann Kristovich (USA), a friend of Jim Bowden, considerably extended the record, reaching a depth of 167 m/548 ft on open circuit at Zacaton cave, Mexico. Ann’s world record dive would remain in place for a long time.

It was not until the year 2000 that another woman, Claudia Serpierri (Italy), would beat the previous record, but this time in the sea (Mediterranean Sea). Claudia would reach a depth of 211 m/692 ft on open circuit, diving from a support ship. This dive remains the deepest sea dive by a woman to date.

Toward the end of 2001, Verna van Schaik (South Africa), was ready to challenge the women’s record. First, she did her deepest dive by reaching a depth of  186 m/610 ft  (223 m/732 ft correcting for altitude), on open circuit, at Bushmansgat cave in South Africa. This was not enough for her, and during her next expedition on October 25, 2004, Verna would go back to Bushmansgat cave to become the first South African woman to get her name in the Guinness Book of World Records by reaching a depth of  221 m/725 ft  (265 m/870 ft altitude corrected), on open circuit. Her deep support diver was the late Dave Shaw (Australia), on closed circuit, who died of respiratory insufficiency at a sub-250 m dive at Bushmansgat in 2005.

View of the surface pool of Boesmansgat cave.

Following Verna van Schaik’s dive at Bushmansgat cave, two women divers died trying to break her record, as follows: 

In May 2010, French diver Brigitte Lenoir, died in Dahab, Egypt during a dive in the Red Sea. The accident took place at 147 m/482 ft while ascending from a 200 m/656 ft, on closed circuit. Her body was recovered with an ROV. 

In September 2017, Bulgarian technical diving instructor trainer, Teodora Balabanova, died attempting a dive to 231 m/754 ft, on open circuit, while her husband, Mihail Balabanov, suffered from decompression sickness. 

Karen van den Oever is a science graduate from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she currently resides. Like Verna van Schaik, who now resides in New Zealand, she is a CMAS diving instructor, and also a former member of the University of the Witwatersrand Underwater Club. 

Her original cave, trimix and blending training was with me. I also trained her husband Francois Bain. 

Unstoppable Karen van den Oever

Karen had previously dived to 201 m/660 ft (241 m/792 ft altitude corrected) on open circuit in Bushmansgat cave in South Africa’s Northern Cape province on February 27, 2020. That dive’s total dive time was 7 hours and 21 minutes. On March 26, 2021, Karen dove to 236.04 m/770 ft (283 m/924 ft), on open circuit, at Bushmansgat cave, using a bottom gas of trimix 6/85. The total dive time was 7 hours and 18 minutes. That dive is the current deep diving Guinness World Record (women).

  • Buddy Dive Bonaire

Karen’s new world record dive, done on October 27, 2022, was made to a depth of 246.65 m/809 ft (296 m/971 ft), in Bushmansgat cave. The dive was done on open circuit, using a bottom gas of trimix 4/90, and with a total dive time of 8 hours and 14 minutes. The dive would not have been possible without a large team of support divers. 

Karen’s dive computer. Actual depth from rope measurements by independent witnesses was 246.56m/809 ft.

Peter Reid was at 209 m/686 ft (251 m/823 ft); this was his personal deepest dive on closed circuit, and his total dive time was 6 hours and 20 minutes. Don Hauman did deep support at 110 m/361 ft (132 m/433 ft). Her husband Francois provided shallow support and surface support, together with the other team members.

Karen’s support team.

Karen’s Total Narcotic Depth (TND) was 48.06 m/158 ft; the Equivalent Narcotic Depth (END) considering nitrogen only was 9.49 m/31.14 ft, and her maximum Partial Pressure of Oxygen (PO2) was 1.03 Atm. Gradient factors: 40/75.

There were no serious incidents during the dive except that Karen suffered some mild High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS), which ultimately did not prevent her from going any deeper. Karen had some difficulties recovering the evidence tag from her maximum depth because of the tremors that she was experiencing as a result of the HPNS, but in the end she turned the dive mainly because she ran out of bottom time. 

  • Buddy Dive Bonaire

Dive Deeper

InDEPTH: South African Cave Diver Karen van den Oever Sets New Women’s Deep Cave Diving Record

InDEPTH: Diving Beyond 250 Meters: The Deepest Cave Dives Today Compared to the Nineties

InDEPTH: Extending The Envelope Revisited: The 30 Deepest Tech Shipwreck Dives

InDEPTH: Opinion: Don’t Break That Record

InDEPTH: Fact or Fiction? Revisiting Guinness World Record Deepest Scuba Dive


Nuno Gomes is a professional civil engineer, a CMAS technical diving instructor and a commercial diver. He was born in Lisbon, but his family relocated to South Africa during his youth. He now lives permanently in New York with his family. He has dived all over the world.

He used SCUBA (open circuit) to dive to a depth of 321.81 meters (1,056 feet), inclusive of rope stretch, in the Red Sea off the coast of Egypt near Dahab, in June 2005. The total dive time was 12 hours and 20 minutes. The descent took 14 minutes with two minutes spent at the bottom.

He also used SCUBA (open circuit) to dive to 282.6 meters (927 feet) in the Bushmansgat cave, in South Africa, in 1996. The cave is located at an altitude of 1,550 meters (5,086 feet) above sea level, which resulted in a decompression schedule for an equivalent sea level dive to a depth of 339 meters (1,112 feet) in order to prevent decompression sickness. The total dive time was 12 hours and 15 minutes with four minutes spent at the bottom of the cave.

Subscribe for free
Continue Reading

Trending