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Tribute to Wes Skiles

Florida recently lost one of its great environmental advocates when filmmaker and springs cave explorer Wes Skiles died during a dive off the coast of West Palm Beach while filming for the National Geographic Society. In November, the Florida DEP and Florida State Parks renamed Peacock Springs State Park in recognition of Wes' commitment to protection of Florida's springs and environment.

Dedication: Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park

On November 16, 2010, Wes' family and friends joined Florida DEP Secretary Mimi Drew and others for the unveiling and renaming of Peacock Springs. Jim Stevenson, a former administrator of DEP's Springs Iniative, spoke about Wes' love of life and springs.

Image of Wes Skiles is shown filming a diver entering the water at Silver Glenn Spring during the production of "Water's Journey: The River Returns."Wes Skiles is shown filming a diver entering the water at Silver Glenn Spring during the production of "Water's Journey: The River Returns." © Russell Sparkman

I had the good fortune to spend my entire 38 year career in the Department of Environmental Protection. Now -- I am a rather low tech guy. A few years ago, DEP's Secretary Struhs said if I didn’t give up my old carousel slide projector and start using power point for my springs presentations, I would have to retire. So I retired. Wes participated in the “roast” at my retirement party at Wakulla Spring. He joyfully announced to the audience that he had to go all the way to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. to find the last remaining slide carousel for Jim’s slide programs and he roared with laughter.

Listen! Can you hear his laugh? I can. Wes’ laughter would fill a room. He is laughing with joy today because his family and so many of his friends and associates have gathered in his name here, at one of his favorite springs.

Wes was a champion for Florida’s springs before most of us even knew that springs were in trouble.

Wes was a champion for Florida’s springs before most of us even knew that springs were in trouble. He didn’t go to college to study geology, hydrology or water chemistry. Instead he had self taught knowledge and deep passion. He figured out spring processes during years of diving in the caves of north Florida’s springs and his endless curiosity

Wes was far ahead of the rest of us in recognizing the vulnerability of karst to pollution. Twenty years ago he wrote a letter to DEP recommending that a dairy, proposed to be located in the Ichetucknee Springs Basin, should be denied because of the impact it would have on Ichetucknee Springs. The dairy was denied.

Image of At the dedication, Wes Skiles' children Tessa and Nathan, wife Terri, and brother Jim unveiled the new sign for Peacock Springs State Park. They were joined by Donald Forgione, the Florida Park Service Director.At the dedication, Wes Skiles' children Tessa and Nathan, wife Terri, and brother Jim unveiled the new sign for Peacock Springs State Park. They were joined by Donald Forgione, the Florida Park Service Director. © Ross Ambrose

In 1999, the Department of Environmental Protection formed the Florida Springs Task Force. I had the good fortune to appoint Wes to serve on the task force to represent education and the cave divers. Wes knew the “springs landscape.” He recommended task force members who could best represent commercial spring parks, and the bottled water companies and a farmer for agriculture. Wes was a forceful member. During one of our task force meeting, we were discussing how we should select the most important springs for protection and Wes said that “every spring is important and deserves protection.”

When agency members had to tip toe around sensitive political issues, Wes was there to say what needed to be said. Prior to meetings, I would sometimes ask Wes to push a certain issue and to insist that we recommend stronger action. He loved it. It was like having my own “enforcer.”

Image of During the unveiling and dedication, friends and family were unfazed as the skies opened up to replenish Wes' beloved Peacock Spring.Zoom+ During the unveiling and dedication, friends and family were unfazed as the skies opened up to replenish Wes' beloved Peacock Spring. © Gene Page

Wes stood ready to serve our springs. He and I enjoyed working together as a team. We met with DEP’s Mike Sole and Mimi Drew a few years ago to discuss springs protection regulations and a couple years later Wes and I met with Commissioner Bronson to discuss reducing agricultural impacts in the Ichetucknee Springs Basin. As we were preparing for the Florida Springs Rally to be held at the Capital in February, Wes said “Tell me what you want me to do.” I asked him to film the Rally and give an inspirational speech about the deterioration of our springs since he has known them. He did both exceedingly well.

Wes has done more to educate Floridians about the plight of our springs then has anyone else. His legacy is his outstanding films. Polluting the Fountain of Youth in 1998, Protecting Florida Springs in 2001, Spirit of the Ichetucknee in 2002, Waters Journey: Hidden Rivers in 2003 and The Springs Heartland in 2008. Some of you are in those films. Wes also arranged for the National Geographic Magazine article “North Florida’s Springs” in the March 1999 issue.

Wes has done more to educate Floridians about the plight of our springs. His legacy is his outstanding films.

Wes did his part. We owe it to our good friend to do our part.

Listen! I can hear him prodding and encouraging us to do more to protect our springs. Several of you have been actively doing your part for years. But the rest of you need to dive into the action.

Image of During the filming of Water's Journey: Hidden Rivers of Florida, Wes and radio tracking expert Brian Pease picked through the trash thrown in Vampire Sinkhole, which connects directly to the aquifer.Zoom+ During the filming of Water's Journey: Hidden Rivers of Florida, Wes and radio tracking expert Brian Pease picked through the trash thrown in Vampire Sinkhole, which connects directly to the aquifer. © Russell Sparkman

Wes traveled the world as a filmmaker and diver. Cave divers travel from around the world, from six continents, to dive here at Peacock Springs. Are there any cave divers in the audience? From other countries? Which states? You remember the movie “The Russians Are Coming” ? Well, the Russians are here, diving in north Florida’s springs, as are the Brazilians, Australians, and Germans. Divers from at least 47 countries travel here to Peacock Springs to dive. They come here to dive in clean clear water. They are spending their money here in Suwannee, Gilchrist and Columbia Counties. They will no longer come to Peacock and the other magnificent spring caves of north Florida if the water ceases to be clean and clear because of pollution or ----- if the springs cease to flow because of pumping.

Wakulla Spring is no longer clear. Silver Springs and Hornsby Spring are no longer clean. Ichetucknee Springs has lost over 15 percent of its flow because of pumping- perhaps from as far away as Jacksonville. White Spring in the town of White Spring, Worthington Spring in the town of Worthington Spring, Hampton and Fenholloway Springs near Perry no longer flow because of pumping. What will Florida be like without its springs?

Image of During the Water's Journey web production, Wes took local students on a tour at Wakulla Springs explaining how divers were exploring caves 300 feet below their own feet.Zoom+ During the Water's Journey web production, Wes took local students on a tour at Wakulla Springs explaining how divers were exploring caves 300 feet below their own feet. © Russell Sparkman

Wes was an extraordinary Floridian. We commend the Department of Environmental Protection for renaming this special place “Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park.” Wes would be proud.

And if you would you like to do something in Wes’ memory? Then do something for a Florida spring. You can make a difference. I have a list that I can send you, but here are some things that you can do with little effort:

  • If there is a spring in your county, take your county commissioner to see it.
  • Buy the “Protect Florida Springs” specialty license tag.
  • If you live in a springshed, stop fertilizing your lawn, and,
  • Take a child to see a spring.

Wes will be grateful and a spring will whisper thank you.

-- Jim Stevenson


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