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DiverWire Profile: A look at Bonaire’s diving history with Captain Don Stewart

(DiverWire) It was early in 1962 when Captain Don Stewart, hurricane whipped with only 63 cents and his ship’s papers in his pocket, sought refuge on the small Dutch island of Bonaire. He found a sleepy island, wonderful people, and a large tranquil bay harboring endless miles of coral jungle. As he says, “There was a magic here, where everything yet unborn was on the verge of reality.” He then became a member of this community of barely 4,000.

Goats, charcoal, and salt were Bonaire’s only commerce; her virgin reefs an untapped treasure, tourism non-existent.

Within months Don and his mate Percy had introduced the locals to their own underwater environment by building a sizable aquarium. This was the beginning of Don’s sharing with Bonaireans the wonders of their own seas.

Early in 1963 as the manager of an old WW II internment camp turned resort, he sought a new breed, the undersea tourist; and the diving industry on Bonaire had begun. From the beginning, Don sensed the heart of this island was within her forest of living coral and it proved to be so. In time, Bonaire emerged from her cocoon to become a top ranking scuba diving destination, a leader in reef ecology, and the world’s first island-wide marine park. Bonaire now serves as a drawing board for reef conservation, for the rest of the world to follow.

Aquaventure was built by Captain Don in 1972 and was the first Bonaire diving center on the island. In 1975 the Council of Underwater Resort Operators (CURO) was formed as an environmental group. The Captain also launched the Sea Tether undersea mooring program, undertaking the building and installing of 60 new moorings. Captain Don’s Sea Rangers concept is considered the stepping-stone for the current Bonaire Marine Park.

Never stopping, in 1976, he founded Captain Don’s Habitat as what he called a 100% environmental diving resort. At this writing, Bonaire is recognized as the number one destination in the Caribbean for shore diving and snorkeling.

Entering his twilight years, the Captain recognized Bonaire’s need for island-grown plants and in 1980 developed another first by building a seven-acre plant nursery.

For years visitors have clamored for stories of his on-going adventures that began in Hollywood in 1947 when he first entered the undersea world of scuba diving. Captain Don’s schooner, the Valerie Queen, was purchased as a prop for a movie deal that fell through before filming, but Don and the schooner set out on a search for adventure.

Answering this challenge for stories Captain Don found a new hobby, authoring some of his adventures. He has written many stories, before and during his time in Bonaire both true and fictional. He says, “My stories are 85% true, the remaining 15% is left to your imagination.”

Captain Don has written nine novels, two of which have been published. Reef Windows was released in 2010 and was followed in 2011 by Sea Trauma, described by Don as, “An undersea science fiction adventure.” Don has a prescient, forward thinking wisdom that foresaw the continued demise of the oceans. It is evident that our generation will continue see evidence of adverse changes in our oceans. Don began writing Sea Trauma in 1980 as a dare from a New York based publisher.

Sea Trauma is a story about a family caught up in an adventure after the ocean is threatened with suffocation due to mutant algae called schizotrixpollutansi. Through faith and courage the family and their allies fight even against nature itself to rejuvenate the dying seas. Delivering a strong environmental message, the book was published and printed locally in Bonaire. Currently the hard copy is only available on the island where Captain Don can personally sign it every Monday at ‘Meet the Captain Night’ at Captain Don’s Habitat.

Over the past 49 years Captain Don Stewart has been awarded over 56 awards and recognitions for his continued pioneering environmental leadership on the island of Bonaire. In 2008 he was honored with the title of Knight from the Dutch order of Orange-Nassau. This year on May 21, 2012 will mark Don’s fiftieth anniversary of his arrival on Bonaire when he commenced contributing to the care and well being of Bonaire’s environment and its people.

Captain Don’s latest books are now downloadable in pdf format at

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