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To Wes: A Tenacious Advocate Committed to Protecting Florida’s Springs

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By Todd Kincaid. Header image: Down the river from Ginnie Springs, the pure spring water collides with the tannic-stained surface water of the Santa FeRiver. Photo by Wes Skiles. This photo appeared in the National Geographic story, “Unlocking the Labyrinth of North Florida Springs,” published in March 1999,

I’ve been humbled several times in my life. I like to think I’ve learned and grown from each one of them. One of those times was in March 2007. Wes and I were both working as consultants to Coca Cola to develop a computer model of groundwater flow to the springs on the western Santa Fe River. We were both partners in small companies that we’d started to pursue our passions for springs and caves and karst. 

Wes and his team had, by then, been working for at least 20 years on physical measurement of spring flows, cave passages, and groundwater flow paths across much of North Central Florida. In the tiny world of Florida hydrogeology, they were the go-to resource for work on the springs. At the time, Wes was better known to most for his underwater cave filming and photography, which by then had included the documentary film: Water’s Journey, The Hidden Rivers of Florida, which is, in my opinion, still the best depiction of cave diving and groundwater flow to springs that has ever been made. 

Kenny Broad free dives into the bizarre and eerie looking Devil’s Ear. Photo by Wes Skiles

My team and I were comparative Johnny-come-latelys. We’d started our company in 1999 intent on building better computer models of groundwater (and contaminant) flow to springs. I was confident—some might say cocky—in my knowledge of groundwater flow across the Santa Fe River area having studied the area intently for several years, both as a hydrogeologist and as a cave diver. Besides, I was part of a team of young, enthusiastic, and wicked smart hydrogeologic modelers. 

Protecting Ginnie Springs

Coca Cola had hired both of our teams to help them devise a plan to protect the quantity and quality of groundwater flow to Ginnie Springs, and in so doing the source of water for their bottling operation in High Springs Florida. I’d organized a field trip to the Santa Fe River for our collective technical staff as well as key Coca Cola personnel to demonstrate why our team needed to focus on the entire basin (~1,930 km2 or 750 mi2) as opposed to just the area around the water bottling plant and Ginnie spring. The reason being that in order to achieve their goal, Coca Cola would have to succeed in a sociopolitical effort to change the way groundwater was managed in at least the Santa Fe River basin, and to do that, they’d need to address big picture problems and concepts. 

Wes and partner Pete Butt loading the dye tracing gun. Photo courtesy of Karst Productions

Pete Butt, Wes’s business partner, and I were leading the trip. We had gathered at a picnic table behind the dive shop at Ginnie Springs to go over our agenda with the group and to get some thoughts on flow patterns and key sites from Wes. Wes started out in an unassuming but direct manner that I would come to know as his style. He rolled out a ragged set of 1:24,000 scale topographic maps that spanned most, if not all, of the western Santa Fe River basin (perhaps as many as 15 maps, each measuring about 58 cm or 23 in on each side). These mapshad been taped together and annotated with notes and lines and numbers penned over what must have been years or even decades. Wes had recorded on those maps every foot of underwater cave passage that he’d explored and mapped along with arrows pointing out the direction of flow and notes about the water clarity and velocity as well as sediment conditions that he had observed. Countless lines marking passages in tens of caves, most of which I didn’t even know existed, much less had been explored and mapped. I’d never seen Wes’s map before, nor anything like it, and a few things were immediately apparent.

One, that here was a guy who had not only expectedly and immeasurably exceeded my level of experience in cave exploration but also, more significantly, far exceeded my dedication to documenting what he’d seen and learned. Two, that despite never being trained as a hydrogeologist, he’d clearly developed a more detailed understanding of groundwater flow through the basin than I had or any hydrogeologist I’d ever met. And three, that something must have gone terribly wrong in my profession for a map like this to exist but not even to be known or much less published and used as the guide that it so clearly should be.   

It was a watershed moment for me. I saw before me a map that I’d hoped to make myself but that already existed. I remembered the times when Wes had come into our hydrogeology classrooms at the University of Florida to show videos of the caves that I took for granted but never spoke of in school; of the days when professional hydrogeologists came to those same classes from the various resource management agencies and told us that caves didn’t exist or were irrelevant in the practice of groundwater science, that professionals studied wells but amateurs studied springs, and that Wes must surely have fabricated his cave videos – Hollywood style.

In later years, Wes told me of the repeated trips he’d made to those agencies, with his maps and videos in hand, trying to show people where the water came from, where it was being contaminated, and where it needed to be protected. To the discredit of my profession, he also told me of being dismissed for not being educated enough to understand hydrogeology. I’m sure it made him mad but just as sure that it made him laugh, and to be able to laugh in the face of adversity is a truly admirable quality. 

A Committed Advocate 

It is within and amongst the springs, places that have been described as pools of liquid light, that he carved out a life, made a home, and inspired countless people around the world. Wes was a truly committed advocate for springs protection. Not the type of advocate who prattles on emotionally with what he described as misguided animosity about things  they’re unwilling to truly understand. Instead, he was the type of advocate who brings to the table a lifetime of intimate knowledge that stems from an insatiable curiosity and a tenacious quest for answers. He understood springs for what they truly are, spiritual places of extraordinary beauty to be sure, but also keystones to the fabric of Florida’s water supply. Features that must be preserved if the aquifer, on which so many people and industries and ecosystems depend, is to remain intact, functional, and sustaining. In his uniquely engaging way, Wes spoke of Florida’s springs’ importance to all who were smart enough to listen.

Karst Environmental Services diver releasing a dye into the springs so that the water flow can be traced. Photo courtesy of Karst Productions.

Despite being ignored for so many years, Wes accepted every opportunity to engage with politicians and decision makers about the need for springs protection and to teach people of all ages and pedigrees about Florida’s springs and the caves from which their waters flow. Jim Stevenson, who served as Chief Naturalist of Florida’s State Parks for 20 years, appointed Wes to the first Florida Springs Task Force in 1999 where he served tirelessly to say what needed to be said, as Jim puts it, “despite political sensitivities” that muzzled most other voices. He spoke truth to power seemingly without regard for consequences.  

I am fortunate to have known and worked with Wes and am sure that like many others will always wish that there could have been more time. Wes helped me from the beginning of my career when so many suggested that I was wasting my time in the caves. While the professionals spoke to me from the comfort of their offices about slow and ancient groundwater impervious to depletion or degradation, Wes invited me to join him to actually see and measure the flows for ourselves. 

An Inconvenient Truth

On a scorching Florida day, in advance of a two-day thunderstorm, together with friends and neighbors constituting his tribe, we dragged scuba tanks and dyes and special gasses and hundreds of feet of tubing deep into the woods above Ichetucknee Springs to inject our tracers into the veins of Florida’s blood supply. Several days later, after leaving the comfort of our soaking wet tents every 30-60 minutes to collect samples from the springs, we had hard data that speaks to Florida’s very own inconvenient truth – that groundwater flow is fast and that the quantity and quality of Florida’s water is very highly dependent on what Floridians are doing at the land surface. It’s a truth that Wes and his team proved time and time again through their work as hydrologists, despite their lack of formal education. If the saying common in engineering is true that one test is worth 1,000 expert opinions—then Wes and his team have surely contributed more to our understanding of Florida’s groundwater than many 1000s of experts.

Following his death, the state of Florida renamed Peacock Springs State Park for Wes Skiles. Photo by Fan Ping.

Wes never stopped scheming about the next opportunity to show people the truth. In one of my last conversations with him, he told me about how frustrated he was with his work on the Water’s Journey series, particularly the last installments where he felt restrained in his ability to call attention to what he believed to be the culprits of Florida’s deteriorating springs. He also told me of his plan to get funding for a new series about the springs in which he could tell the story that he wanted to tell the way he wanted to tell it. Despite his many successes, I don’t think he was ever satisfied enough to rest on his laurels. He was forever exploring and pushing for the next adventure. If only there could have been more time.

The cavern zone of Peacock 1. Photo by Fan Ping.

I’m sure Wes would be flattered to see his name adorn the entrance sign to Peacock Springs State Park. I’m equally certain though that he’d be less than happy with the current state of Florida’s springs, including his namesake. So, if we really wanted to honor Wes, we would let Florida’s officials know that a spring bearing Wes Stiles’s name should be clean and flowing strong and a symbol for what other springs in Florida once were and could be again. 

So, here’s to Wes! He is missed and he will forever remain an inspiration to anyone with a bit of adventure in their hearts – to keep diving, keep trying, keep laughing.

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


Todd is a groundwater scientist, underwater explorer, and advocate for science-based conservation of water resources and aquatic environments. He holds BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in geology and hydrogeology, and is the founder of GeoHydros, a consulting firm specializing in the development of computer models that simulate complex hydrogeologic environments. He has been an avid scuba diver since 1980 having explored, mapped, and documented caves, reefs, and wrecks across much of the world. He helped start the diving organization Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) in 1999 and served on its Board of Directors and as its Associate Director from its inception to 2018. He started Project Baseline with GUE in 2009 and has been the organization’s Executive Director from its beginning.

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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.

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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).

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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. 

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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.

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