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Wesley C. Skiles: Extreme Cool



By Emory Kristof. Header image of the B-15 iceberg by Wes Skiles appeared in National Geographic “Islands of Ice” in December, 2001.

I first learned about Wes Skiles when watching a documentary about a group of divers trapped underground in Australia. It seemed that a sudden heavy rainstorm started filling up the cave system the divers were exploring. In the center of this developing tragedy was Wes. Through a display of  extreme cool, MacGyver-like problem solving, super diving technique, and just maybe a little bit of luck, there was a happy ending, with all the rescued mud-soaked divers wrapped in blankets and looking like drowned rats, but grinning happily in the late afternoon sunshine.  Wes had the biggest grin and the best quotes. “He was the man,” and I was looking forward to meeting him and working with him someday.

We met at Wakulla Springs, Florida, for planning meetings for a large project to explore the Springs with scuba, underwater habitats, powered scooters, and the ROVS I could bring from the Geographic.  Wes was impressive in person. He was a legendary cave diver and explorer of the freshwater cave systems of Florida and Mexico. He could organize and lead anything. But it was the awesome beauty of these dark and little-known watery realms that Wes wanted to bring to us surface dwellers. Wes knew, loved, and understood the importance of the hidden Karst formations, and he felt it was necessary that we were educated and cared, too. 

Paul Heinerth leaving Ice Island Cave #4. Photo by Jill Heinerth

Fresh water is taken for granted, and wasted, by most of us. Wes went to the underground sources of much of this underappreciated resource, and crafted magnificent images unlike any I had seen before. These pictures, whether still or motion, were “stoppers” that could hold your interest and make you curious to find out what they were about. Then Wes had you, because he was a great storyteller and educator, and a single drop of water traveling under a Florida city was on an important mission. Wes learned to master many skills to feed his passion, but his core skill had to be that of “Jedi” Diver. There are many levels of scuba diving expertise, but cave diving at the level at which Wes was engaged was in a class all its own. It is ironic then that Wes’s last dive was not in a cave, but in 60 feet/18m of open water doing a science dive off the coast of Florida.

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Wes was a great guy to share an adventure with in the field. As hard as Wes worked, he also liked to laugh and make music, mostly on his harmonica. There are fond memories of Wes in a NewtSuit surrounded by Six Gill sharks at 600 feet off Vancouver Island. Wes was making a TV show entitled “Walking With Sharks.” I was filming from Phil Nuytten’s Otter submersible. One of the sharks went cruising between Wes’s legs, giving him a thrill. I told him we had hung a pork chop between his legs before we launched him. He was speechless for the first time I can remember.

Wes and his friend Jeffrey Haupt went out to Rongelap in the Marshall Islands with Teddy Tucker, Bill Curtsinger, Eric Hiner, Mike Cole, the owners and crew of the 85 foot Yacht, MYSTIQUE, and me to do the Magazine Story and TV show on the animal life up to one mile deep in the waters surrounding the Rongelap Islands. Rongelap was 70 miles from Bikini Atoll and had been covered by three inches of radioactive fallout from the largest H-Bomb the US ever tested in the 1950’s. The population had been evacuated AFTER the test. 

Skiles on ice. Selfie by Wes Skiles
Wes being lowered into the frigid water wearing a Cis-Lunar rebreather where Paul Heinerth is waiting. Photo by Jill Heinerth.

At the time of our visit, everything alive on the islands was still radioactive with Cesium 137. The fish life was thriving, the water was clean, but nobody could live on the land. Every evening after dinner we sat on the after deck of MYSTIQUE and had a concert by Wes on harmonica and Jeffrey on guitar. It was surreal to listen to Wes’s mournful blues offshore of this radioactive tropical paradise with its rotting little church and swarms of flies. We felt like the last survivors at the end of the earth.

In the Mexican Yucatan, Wes was part of a large group of archeologists surveying a major new Maya Cenote site. I had a smaller group, with a pair of small ROVS, taking a quick look at some of the surrounding smaller sites. We would all get together sometimes at lunch and late in the day to compare notes. One day after lunch, Wes had an urgent case of the Mexican two-step. He grabbed a roll of toilet paper and went running for the jungle with the TP held over his head and streaming in the wind, all the while screaming like a banshee. Wes really knew how to liven up a dull meeting. I will never forget the image.

Archaeologists prepare to dive in a cenote to examine Mayan remains. This photo by Wes Skiles ran in the Oct. 2003 National Geographic story, “Watery Graves of the Maya,”

All of Wes’s stories in National Geographic were special, as were his TV shows. I was pleased to help him fund and produce his Antarctic adventure on the large B-15 Iceberg. Wes mentioned our getting together on another project after he finished his Blue Holes story for National Geographic Magazine. This was the cover story for the August 2010 Geographic, and it is a great piece of work that everybody at Geographic is very proud of, but it is carried by Wes’s images.  Wes was the greatest, but he left the scene too early, leaving us all wanting more Wes. His family, friends, Geographic Editors, and his diving buddies all will miss him dearly. I hope the angels appreciate harmonica music.

Wes and the Bahamas Blue Holes story team. Photo: team selfie by Wes Skiles

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

The National Geographic Magazine has been doing stories in the deep sea since William Beebe went *One Half-Mile Down” in 1934.  The discovery of new life forms around volcanic vents, huge deep-dwelling sharks a mile down, shipwrecks such as the TITANIC, BISMARCK, and EDMUND FITZGERALD have been covered by Emory Kristof in the pages, videos, and IMAX of the National Geographic.

For over 60 years, Emory has grown up with the developing submersibles, and remotely operated vehicles (ROVS) that helped him produce the images he wants to share, excite, and educate people about the deep sea.


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.




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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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.

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