Captain Don looking for an island
The diving industry was still in its infancy, and in 1974 Aquaventure was the focal point of the island's underwater world. It was not until 1975 when Peter and Alice Hughes opened their business at the Flamingo Beach Resort that the dive community on the island really began to grow.
Captain Don gained a reputation for his tirades over divers who didn't respect the underwater environment. It became common knowledge among divers that if you were caught by Captain Don breaking off a piece of coral, you were in for a severe tongue lashing, followed by a quick trip to the airport. The governor's words to Captain Don when he had first arrived on the island had become his own. One day a man sitting on the beach observed one of Don's scenes involving a diver carrying a piece of coral. The man was Carel Steensma, the director of KLM based in Curacao and an avid diver, who came to Bonaire on weekends to dive. That day invited the Captain to sit and talk to him. Steensma and Stewart combined their ideas and efforts and the result was the Bonaire National Marine Park, which still operates today.
In 1976 Don bought a rack of bungalows overlooking a dive shop that would become known as Captain Don's Habitat. The dive shop was open for diving 24 hours a day and became the symbol of "Diving Freedom," which is the concept that the Habitat was built upon. The resort would quickly become exposed to 4 million readers of Irvin Hasen's comic strip, Dondi. He loved to snorkel and while visiting the island wrote an 8 day strip that featured the island and Captain Don.
Valarie Queen at Catalina (1956)
Captain Don would sit in his second story office and keep a watchful eye on all he could see…his property, dive boats, tourists, other proprietors…guarding the island and the reefs he so loved. It was during this time that Stewart became involved in a salvage project of an ocean-going raft, Dutch Tiki, during which he seriously injured his foot and ankle, requiring a special swimming cast for six long years. This accident would eventually cost him part of his leg and foot.
During the next few years Don worked on building and placing a hundred permanent moorings, helping to develop the Bonaire National Marine Park, and could claim the first state of the art waste water facility on Bonaire at his hotel. To quote Captain Don, "By 1975 we had built a diving empire, a Marine Park, a worldwide reputation, and became the leaders of Caribbean reef environmentalism." CURO(the Council of Underwater Resort Operators) was established and Stewart set legislation in motion to ban spear fishing on the island. The carpetbaggers desiring a piece of the action and quick wealth came in droves, so Captain Don continued to help design safeguards to protect the island and reef, helping to put Bonaire on the Tourist Map.
After nine years, Don sold his beloved hotel, admitting that this was the best thing that ever happened to him. The time was also right for Aquaventure to come to its end. This allowed Stewart to aim his full attention on his passion, underwater conservation.
In 1989 he went on to build the island's first shade houses, propagated plants, and re-established his wet photography. His typing improved steadily and in the next ten years he wrote three more books and a bundle of short stories.
Valarie Queen at sea
Captain Don is no stranger to recognition and well-deserved awards. He received the DEMA Reaching Out Award in 1998 and was elected to the Scuba Hall of Fame in 2005. In April of 2008, Captain Don was awarded the title of Knight (Dutch: "Ridder") within the order of Orange -Nassau, the highest military and civilian decoration of the Netherlands, to recognize his pioneering environmental leadership on the Dutch Island of Bonaire.
Today, Captain Don can be seen daily watering his four acres of beautiful island plants with his fiancé of 30 years, Janet, by his side. One could say that Stewart has been shipwrecked for over 50 years on the island of Bonaire. He never left the island since he lost his ship in 1963. If the Governor were still alive, there is no doubt that he would agree that his island was indeed much "better off" because of the presence of this true Legend of Diving, the great Captain Don Stewart.
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(ILD would like to thank Captain Don for contributing pictures and excerpts from his books and colorful life.)