Stewart, now 58, arrived on Bonaire 22 years ago—with a whimper. His aging schooner, the Valerie Queen, damaged in a hurricane, simply sank one night while he was ashore carousing. Fortunately for a generation of divers, Stewart, a former U.S. Navy pharmacist's mate from Oakland, decided to stick around. He opened the first dive operation on the island, at the Flamingo Beach Hotel—then just a cluster of cottages that had housed Italian and German prisoners during World War II—explored most of the reefs and named most of the dive sites. He subsequently worked out of the Hotel Bonaire and now runs his own hotel cum dive shop, Cap'n Don's Habitat, just up the coast from Kralendijk. "This isn't a hotel," Stewart loudly objects. "It's a dive shop where we let you sleep, eat, drink or fornicate between dives. It's a concept. Hell, it's a way of life!"
Stewart was the driving force behind the creation of the marine park. His is the loudest, most persistent voice for conservation of Bonaire's underwater Utopia. He was responsible for the outlawing of spearfishing, the buoying of the dive sites, the pervasive save-the-reefs attitude. The walls in the Habitat's office and bar are papered with stories and photographs of Cap'n Don in his early years on Bonaire, when he was a slim, dark, wryly grinning seawolf with an Errol Flynn mustache and a Captain Blood leer. "Look at me now," he moans to anyone who will listen. "You'll see what a life underwater can do to a man."
Indeed, the sea has taken its toll—The Fifty Scars of Captain Don was the title of a series he wrote for the Scuba Times. Knife scars, coral rips, the white vestiges of ancient compound fractures, fingers knobbed by old cuts inflicted by morays. The once broad shoulders are mottled with what look like sun-cancer weals, the once dark hair has gone stiff—and is now more salt than pepper—from a combination of sun, saltwater and that ultimate hair bleach, age. The eyes, though, still glint sea-bright under their grizzled brows.
Stewart's worst scar was inflicted in 1980 during the last stages of a salvage operation on Bonaire's east coast, where the trades pile huge combers onto the craggy cliffs. He was diving on the wreck of a strange raftlike sailing vessel from The Netherlands called the Sterke Yerke (Lame Duck)—a craft built of sealed-off drain pipes that was trying, on a lark, to make it from Holland to Curacao. The voyage fell short by 30 miles on the lee shore of Bonaire. "I vowed publicly to Queen Juliana that I'd refloat that silly-ass Steddika Yeddika and complete the journey," Cap'n Don says. "We just about had her ready to go when this happened." He slaps his right leg below the knee. It's encased in a plastic sheath. "I was sitting on the deck, waiting to go down again, when a seventh wave caught me." As any beach bum knows, waves run in cycles, with the seventh in a series usually being the biggest by far. The monster comber swept Stewart across the deck, but at the same time it rolled an oil drum onto his right swim fin, pinning his foot in place. The wave carried the rest of Stewart backwards, crushing his tibia, fibula and tarsus like so much punky driftwood. "It smarted some," he says.
For a while the injury somewhat curtailed Stewart's underwater adventuring, because he couldn't flex the smashed ankle and was limited to only one fin-power. But the Habitat's can-do diving master, David Serlin, built a spring-powered "superfin" that Stewart could lash to his plastic-cased lower leg, returning the good Captain to aquatic mobility. "You don't want to get in the backwash of that fin," Serlin warns sotto voce. "He'll blow your mask off and the regulator right out of your mouth."
As the Habitat's manager of diving operations (or "diving master" as he prefers to be called), the 37-year-old Serlin runs one of the most efficient shops in the Caribbean. His three compressors seem to be chugging constantly, driving a 7,180 cubic foot cascade system that can fill six of the shop's 100 standard 2,250 cubic foot scuba tanks simultaneously.
Craig Burns, the manager of Dive Bonaire at the Flamingo Beach, must cope with as many as 170 divers—and their tanks—at a time, and his operation is even better organized, but there's a by-the-numbers impersonality to it that you don't feel at the Habitat. Indeed, Serlin's dive operation can seem laid back to the point of somnambulism. Each diver-guest is responsible for his own gear: You gauge your own air bottle before every dive; you rig your own regulator; you hook up the hoses to both your buoyancy-control vest (BC) and your backup mouthpiece; you check to make sure your weight belt carries enough lead to provide neutral buoyancy; and you tote your own equipment to either of the two flattops that leave the Habitat dock twice a day—at 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., give or take a cup of coffee—to visit dive sites. At Dive Bonaire, by contrast, all your gear from bottle to belt is waiting for you when you march, almost in lockstep, aboard the flattop.
Never are there more than 12 divers per boat at the Habitat, and once in the water you're pretty much your own boss, free to follow the dive guide—usually one or another of four Bonaireans, named Cedric, Wicho, Junior and Genaro—or take off on your own. This attitude is based on what Stewart calls "the Armstrong Opinion." Ten years ago, when one of his divers died after becoming separated from the rest of the party in heavy surf on the windward side of the island, Stewart was so depressed he contemplated quitting the underwater life. A visiting teacher from Rochester, N.Y. named Mike Armstrong, a diver himself, later wrote Stewart a letter, including the following: "Once a person gets certified and has some experience, there becomes a guide diver relationship rather than a teacher student relationship. The guide is acting in an advisory capacity, and should warn of known, unobvious hazards, inform of local laws, customs etc. The guide is then felt to have a minimum responsibility for the diver's actions and should not be expected to make basic go no-go decisions where the diver has all the facts before him her. The ultimate decision is left up to the diver's own good judgment."
A hand-lettered copy of the Armstrong Opinion is posted prominently near the dive shop.
Opinion or no, when underwater Serlin is constantly on the alert for incipient trouble, his eyes wide behind his mask, steadily scanning his co-divers to be sure they're breathing continuously—holding your breath while ascending can quickly induce a fatal air embolism—and not succumbing to nitrogen narcosis, the potentially fatal "rapture of the depths" in which heightened blood-nitrogen levels can cause a diver to "narc out," i.e., get stoned through the anesthetic effect of concentrated nitrogen on the brain. "It's a marvelous high, but like the best of them from whatever means, it can kill you damned quick," says Serlin, who majored in biology at Bucknell, took a master's in pharmacology at St. John's in New York and worked as a pharmacological research and development consultant in the Big Apple before dropping out four years ago to become a professional dive instructor.