HE WAS CHECKING IN a family at his Habitat resort on Bonaire. The reception area was just a small booth. The man for whom Captain Don’s Habitat was named was cranky. The family had arrived by a taxi from the airport after nightfall, and nobody else was around to check them in.
Don didn’t volunteer to show them to their room, but simply pointed them in the direction where it could be found.
Captain Don’s Habitat was primitive in its early days. The idea was to have a place where divers could dive all day and all night if they wished, socialise at the veranda bar under a thatched roof and sleep the few hours away until dawn, when they could dive again.
What rules existed were also primitive. Most involved having a place on the dock to stow gear and not damaging coral through clumsy diving.
We moved from the restaurant and bar area out onto the veranda to continue our conversation. Only it wasn’t really a conversation – Don was talking, I listened.
The restaurant closed down, waiters went home. The bartender served drinks to divers who had decided not to move from their perches on the veranda.
Don enjoyed a tropical drink at that time, so went into the kitchen to see what was left over. He wasted nothing, and his eating habits were peculiar.
He came back and in short order the cook brought him a plate of what other diners had not eaten. It looked something like pasta, but I couldn’t be sure.

IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG before the father of the family that had checked in came to find Captain Don. He complained that there were furry creatures running around their room.
Don got up from the table, went back to the reception area and took a well-worn BB gun out from under the counter.
The father was somewhat surprised by Don’s do-it-yourself mouser, took the BB gun and went back to their room, leaving Don free again to walk to the veranda with me and get back to his now stone cold hot meal and drink.
He asked me some questions. I answered them and he asked more. He was particularly interested in ocean-environment issues, and also concerned that the red dive flag with its horizontal white stripe might be replaced by the international blue-and-white alpha flag.
He had opinions, and most of them concerned protecting Bonaire’s reefs.
It was clear that the island’s economy was intertwined with its ecology. Divers plunked down hard cash at Captain Don’s Habitat to dive every waking moment and sleep with mice. No reefs, no diving – but reefs everywhere in the Caribbean were under attack.
Jamaica was barren. Dynamite- and over-fishing got rid of the fish. Assaults from estuarine pollution carrying phosphates, nitrogen and human and animal waste killed whole offshore reefs
of island-states. And colonies and nations of the Americas facing the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea were under attack by self-pollutants.

CARTOONIST IRWIN HASEN was coming back to Bonaire. Hasen worked for a news syndicate and had created a cartoon character called Dondi, a soulful, black-eyed WW2 orphan who had worked his way into the hearts of millions of Sunday paper readers.
In Bonaire Dondi had met Captain Don, who then featured in the cartoonist’s popular strip. This in turn had helped to popularise Don’s philosophy: Save Bonaire’s Reefs.
Don was frugal, and lived simply on an island where nothing was easy to get.
His sailing boat the Valerie Queen had sunk on Bonaire shortly after his arrival on 21 May, 1962, so he was effectively a marooned sailor. The mostly affable American was 37 and without prospects, kind of over the hill even for a beach-bum.
He was hardly what Bonaire’s Dutch authorities thought of as a catch but they let him stay, providing he caused no trouble and supported himself.
It was his eventual usefulness that kept them from throwing him out. Don sought work and got involved with hotels, set up scuba-diving operations and, little by little, became an impresario.

I SIGNED ONE OF MY BOOKS to Don a few days after our meeting, with my little fish symbol. Silly enough – we were divers, and that was part of the fun.
Don was nonchalant. An employee came to the table on the veranda and quit. It was a squabble – the young man’s pride was hurt. Don had to sign the papers and write a cheque. He had Habitat’s tattered cheque-book on the table along with mail and a pile of papers that looked like bills.
“My signature is recognised at the bank,” said Captain Don as he signed the discharge paper and then a cheque with his scrawl and symbol. The bank in town indeed recognised and honoured it.
I never saw the family with the mouse problem again. Whether they stayed their week at Habitat or not I never asked. Long after, Don alleged to me that Habitat’s problem was not mice but cockroaches, and that was why he armed his guests.
I went diving every day. The water was warm, inviting and so clear. Photographer Nick Caloyianis arrived to take pictures and I dived with him off Klein Bonaire the next day. It was tranquil, and over the deeps the water was an inviting blue.
Don never knew how deep we dived, but the images were spectacular, deep and clear blue, with a bright sky overhead.
Nick was on a 10-day assignment but wanted to get the shots he needed in three days and return to Baltimore.
It was then that our diverse philosophies of life became apparent, because I wanted to complete my three-day assignment in 10 days. And why not Captain Don was an engaging personality.
He put on his pirate act for tourists and also for himself, but he was the nicest pirate I knew. Cranky at times, yet so dedicated to his beliefs that he managed to convince the government on Bonaire to take important conservation measures, in terms of permanent moorings, protection of reefs, preservation of marine resources and steps to prevent pollution.

AND SO BONAIRE, smallest of the three Dutch ABC islands some 37 miles off Venezuela, became a diver’s destination.
There were large hotels and casinos on Aruba and Curaçao and diving was good on those larger islands, but nothing like the dedicated diving on Bonaire. Don ensured that the reefs would stay pristine and Bonaire would be a diver’s paradise.
Captain Don is in diver’s paradise now. He died on 28 May, 2014.
A while back he had told me that his leg had been amputated. I guess the pain and turmoil that an old injury caused him provoked his decision.
He had volunteered to help on a ship that he sailed into Bonaire – I can only pronounce it as the Urka-Jerka – and fell backwards over the side while working, his leg catching in the rigging.
Don hung there by his ankle until he was rescued. The accident caused grave damage to his muscles and tendons and caused him to limp. When he dived he had to put a plastic cast on it.
Captain Don, his mate Janet Thibault and I remained friends over many years, but Don seldom left the island.
I remember that when he was accorded the John Stoneman Marine Environmental Award, which included airfare to a film festival to accept the honor, he declined the trip. He asked instead that the fare money be donated to an environmental cause.
In the end I didn’t get back to Bonaire soon enough. Captain Don’s work is yet unfinished, and will never be finished.
Ocean environmental problems that Don recognised very early on and sought to correct continue. There are more assaults on coral reefs now than there were in 1962 when he landed on Bonaire.
Don and Janet’s inspiration is a beacon to guide our course as divers and toilers in the sea. So long as we glimpse that light, Don will live forever.