Happy times at Captain’s Don Habitat Bonaire, where I used to hang out with my belowed friends Captain Don and Albert Romijn.
Don is a household name on Bonaire, having named most of the island’s dive spots, he has become a legend in his own lifetime.
Venezuelans like me travel to the Dutch Caribbean islands as if we were visiting close friends and neighbors nearby as the islands are only 35 minutes away by plane. When I started going to Bonaire it was a quiet, sunny island, where not much grew except cactus, and the drinking water had to be taken from the sea and desalinized.
But my life changed when I discovered what was hiding in its surrounding waters. Bonaire is one of the world’s top scuba diving destinations. Divers have been travelling to this underwater Mecca for nearly 50 years and Captain Don was a pioneer, putting Bonaire on the map by campaigning to declare it’s reefs a National Park in 1972. He discovered and named most of Bonaire’s dive sites, and lead the campaign to ban spear fishing, by establishing the first mooring buoy system, reducing the need for reef-destroying anchors.
North American born Don Stewart joined the Navy at 17 during World War II. Later he patented a method for putting glass screens into sliding doors. At the age of 36 he began traveling around the Caribbean and first visited Bonaire in 1962, at the helm of his vessel the Valerie Queen. He refers to his arrival on Bonaire as them finding each other. “I consider May 21, 1962, as my real birthday, because before coming to Bonaire my life was not really meaningful”. Since then Steward has built a formidable reputation on the island along with an incredible underwater garden and has initiated a growing business in travel and tourism.
When you meet Captain Don for the first time you notice that he is someone special. Alternating between his captain’s hat and a baseball cap bearing his Captain Don’s Habitat resort logo, he also sports a scarf to protect his ears and neck from the sun and a sharks tooth hanging around his neck contrasts against his colorful shirts. Don Steward presents as a top-class self-taught marketing and public relations practitioner. With his magnetic personality, it seems a natural consequence that he became the best promoter of Bonaire’s underwater world. Captain Don Steward and Bonaire became synonymous with diving, and that will be his legacy.
Captain Don founded the first dive resort on Bonaire Captain Don’s Habitat Bonaire. He started running a modest business a home-from-home self catering operation where guests could access the kitchen and using the honor system could simply write down in a notebook the groceries they used, settling the bill at their convenience later. This was one of the first resorts designed for divers and also where Captain Don first introduced the concept of diving freedom a place where divers could dive anytime they wished, literally 24 hours a day. Captain Don’s Habitat has now become one of the Caribbean’s best known dive spots where the Captain himself holds court once a week. His slot kicks off with a slide show featuring old black and white pictures projected onto a screen, while he retells the stories of his past adventures. Having outlived his underwater challenges and tending to the resort’s garden for many years, his time is now spent on his plant farm, Island Grower. He shares his kunuku (farm) with Janet Thibault, his companion since 1982.
But the model Captain Don set in Bonaire lives on. There is Habitat Curaçao, which takes the philosophy of “Diving Freedom” as its guiding light. Don turned over Captain Don’s Habitat Bonaire to new owners but for many years was still among its shareholders. And although he had no shareholding in Habitat Curaçao, he was the main attraction at the opening ceremony of the casual dive resort.
Captain Don’s relationships with our beloved friend, Albert Romijn, the Director of Habitat Curaçao and Captain Don´s Habitat Bonaire at that time, were like family. Albert was the central part of the party that celebrated the 25th anniversary of Captain Don’s Habitat Bonaire. I remember that as if it were yesterday…, Jack Chalk, the actual GM was the Dive Manager at Captain Don’s Habitat Bonaire, Nick Davies was the resident manager, Jerry Schnabel was the Photo Dive Shop Manager, and those where the golden years in the Dutch Caribbean.
Captain Don shares his life with Janet Thibault, his companion since 1982. They live on their plant farm, Island Grower, working steadily in horticulture. In the past years Don worked hard to establish a marine museum/time capsule, The Accolade, an effort to emphasize Bonaire’s role in reef conservation. He also applied for funds from the European Union to build a recycling water plant on Bonaire, which he considered a priority, even for an island with only 16,000 inhabitants at that time.
How did I get so close to him? Before I became the representative of Captain Don’s Habitat Bonaire and Habitat Curaçao for South America, I lived a couple of years in Aruba. Captain Don, rose to the challenge when I invited him to write for Bonaire Today, a publication which provided tourist information for the ABC islands. Don began writing some of the central stories for the newspaper on a weekly basis and as a result his fan base grew. There was no Internet in those days… Readers of the now defunct weekly newspapers “Bonaire Today” and “Curaçao Today” and many of the island’s tourists knew of his adventures and were eager to meet him when he began writing for those publications. At that time I was the Associate Editor for those newspapers and asked him to write articles for both, which he happily did.
My friend Captain Don died the last month of May. He became the most well-recognized legend of the diving industry in the whole Caribbean. More than two decades ago he was promoting Bonaire’s Diving with the Dive Equipment and Marketing Association, DEMA, Reaching Out Award, among others. Now, Don is history. He ranks with Jacques Cousteau, Hans Haas (the inventor of the Aqualung), and other greats in the underwater Diving Hall of Fame. I was in the launching of his book,”The Adventures of Captain Don” at Captain Don’s Habitat Bonaire, one of the coziest dive resort of the world, which he founded. It was self-published, and he laughed when said that 85 percent of the stories are true. It is perhaps the best souvenir a visitor can take home from Bonaire, and I have my copy signed by him. I can be proud to say: My best friend in Bonaire was Captain Don, and I’ll remember our great times forever.