Rest in Peace, Captain Don Stewart: Early Pioneer of Diving and Reef Conservation Dies at 88

by Owen James Burke

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One of the early proponents of ocean conservation, Stewart was a pioneer in diving, an intrepid sailor, and a class act if you ask anyone who knew him. He died on Friday, May 30th, on the Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire which he has called home since he first landed there in 1962.

52 years ago, when Captain Don Stewart arrived in Bonaire aboard his 1912 wooden 70-foot topsail schooner named Valerie Queen, he had nothing with him but 63 cents and a ragtag crew willing to go anywhere. His reception on the island was strange, to say the least. Disgustful may be a better adjective to describe the reaction to his arrive, as he’d brought nothing with him but a leaking, sinking vessel, no money, a bunch of bohemian undesirables, and no business.

Needless to say, the governor of Bonaire did not take kindly to such a presence on his island, and said something to the effect of “a bum you become, you’re out. However, if my island is better off because of you…”

Stewart saw a challenge. He’d been spearfishing for subsistence and for income, and decided to hold the island’s first spearfishing competition. Immediately afterward, he recognized the damage the event had caused, and hung his speargun on the wall for the last time. He became one of the first true conservationists in the Caribbean (and arguably of all the seas), introduced the marine jungle to the locals, founded undersea tourism, and made fast to become a local fixture of Bonaire, which he remained to his death.

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Born in the San Francisco Bay area in 1925, Captain Don Stewart was raised by a succession of friends and family until six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when he turned seventeen and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. A high school drop-out fancying himself as something of a technician, Stewart’s aptitude tested higher in scholastics than in mathematics, and much to his surprise, he began training as a doctor.

Still a fifth grade reader, Stewart graduated with the top of his class, and began service aboard a ship, stationed to protect the Panama Canal. Instead, he wrote that he found himself “defending marines against advancing venereal diseases.”

By age 19, he was Chief Medical Officer of the USS Persistent. A fellow PhD. aboard found Stewart to be dyslexic and took him on as a project, filling in where his formal schooling had failed him, namely on the topics of typewriting and women (which would later serve him well in his writings, though to this date, none have really ever been published — or submitted).

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Around the same time that Truman dropped the bomb, Stewart was diagnosed with terminal lymphatic cancer, and was released on medical discharge. He bought a boat in Los Angeles in 1947, where he began sailing and running an illegal charter boat service.

He encountered a dentist who was something of a pioneer in the deep sea diving world, before the times of Cousteau, and before diving was something people considered to be somewhat safe, anyway.

Stewart needed dental work, and the dentist, by the name of Harlan, needed a boat to begin his deep sea adventures, each exchanged one another’s services.

The two began experimenting with diving, and in the meantime, Stewart married a Welsh woman in 1955, had two children, and became something of a success in the screening industry. With heavy pockets, Stewart grew bored, yearning for adventure.

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In 1960, Stewart sold his screening patent, bought a schooner, renamed her Valerie Queen after his wife, and threw together a crew of riffraff bohemians willing to sail for wherever. His wife returned to Wales with the children, and Captain Stewart was with wind-in-hair once again.

No general direction in mind but south, Stewart took a turn east, thinking he might like to try on the pirate life in Antigua (this was the premise of his second novel).

“On the 21st of May, 1962,” wrote Stewart, “my wonderful Queen leaking and its crew exhausted, we came upon a small magic island deep in the Dutch West Indies, its vast bay like blue shimmering mirror…No way of knowing but my rightful karma had honestly arrived. A small island, only 112 square miles, maybe 4,000 souls, with a large bay of pristine waters and a massive field of living corals.”

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Stewart had to make something of an entrepreneur of himself in order to stay afloat, turning a WW II German detention camp into a hotel and hosting the Caribbean’s largest spear fishing contest, which he likened to “Americans killing buffalo.”

He was 37 years old with nothing to his name but his ship’s registry papers and a pair of unpublished novels he’d written, locked in the boat’s safe. Still leaking without means for repairs, Valerie Queen sank. He saw her sinking as his karmic awakening:

“Later,” he wrote, “I had only shame. God sank my ship and I lost all I possessed, two finished novels and my wonderful Olivetti to the bottom. As a born again conservationist, my destiny set in stone, I made a promise that all within my influence shall strive to save this sea, and my spear gun went on the wall.”

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In many respects, and as he claimed himself, Stewart put Bonaire on the map. He founded undersea tourism, sold his hotel and diverted his full attention to building a “proper under-sea industry.” He developed “a better divers conduct— the Council of Underwater Operators” to standardize Caribbean diving procedures and enacted the protection of corals by expanding the mooring program so as not to destroy the reef, progressively working to bridge the broad gap between man and his understanding of the sea.

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In 1976, he opened Captain Don’s Habitat, “the home of diving freedom,” where he continued life, more comfortably and securely, as an avid diver, writer, photographer and propagator of environmental conservation.

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Loved by all who chanced to meet him, Captain Don Sterwart owned and operated the Habitat hotel through to his very last breath. He rested very little in his lifetime, and now, ‘so is life’ — and death — Capt. Don, you’ve earned your peaceful rest.

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