A potted history of 'Captain' Don Stewart and a list of the joys to be experienced by visitors to his dive centres on the islands of Bonaire and Curacao, off the coast of Venezuela. By John Bantin
The weighting game.
Errol Flynn was a role model for Don Stewart. A native Californian, Captain Don wanted to be a film star but, short of offers in Hollywood, set off to be a real swash-buckler instead. He loaded his sailing ketch the Valerie Queen with lovelies and set off to find adventure in the Caribbean.
May 1962 found him on a small, Dutch-owned island off the coast of Venezuela. He was broke, his boat was rotting under him and the island was Bonaire. He decided to stay.
Although Hans Hass had dived in the area in the 1930s, it was Captain Don who took it upon himself to develop diving tourism there. In 1962 there were only about 4000 people living on the island, some 300 cars, no compressor and, but for the six he brought ashore, no scuba tanks. That year Bonaire had about 2000 visitors. A small clothes manufacturing effort apart, the main export was goats. Even the old Dutch salt industry was by then non-existent.
Captain Don's first efforts at providing guided leisure dives were modest, to say the least. Necessity being the mother of invention, he improvised where he had to. Underwater nature trails were marked out with thousands of tied-off inflated condoms. It must have played havoc with the turtle population. Most of the dive sites today still bear the names he gave them.
Today tourism is Bonaire's primary industry, with more than 70,000 visitors each year, most coming to visit the coral reefs which are still as magnificent as the day Captain Don started it all. Captain Don's Habitat is one of the most successful and well-known diving operations on the island, and a firm favourite with the US leisure-diving community. The captain was involved in most of the other dive centres on Bonaire, too.
He invented the concept of "diving freedom". This means that once visiting divers have been given an official briefing on local conditions and regulations, paid US$10 for a marine park badge to fix to their BCs, and made an orientation dive, they are free to do what they want. Divers take responsibility for themselves and no one breathes down their necks. If they want to do ten deep dives a day, or dive alone in the middle of the night, that is their own responsibility. This formula is increasingly popular with the diving public - it is the original "unlimited diving". Captain Don is no longer actively involved with diving but makes a guest appearance at the Habitat once a week. He is a great raconteur and, as it says on the front of his autobiography, his tales are guaranteed 85 per cent true!
Bonaire is a small, low-lying, sun-bleached island in the southernmost part of the Caribbean. It lies like a banana in the turquoise sea, safely beyond the hurricane belt.
Bananas do not grow here nor, for that matter, does much else. Bonaire is a fairly featureless area of land, 24 miles long by up to 7 miles wide, covered in inhospitable cactus and with a small area of mangrove.
The blasted landscape is one of saltpans. You can still see some of the sad huts put up for the slave workers who toiled in the sun at the saltworks until the beginning of the 19th century. But there is the Washington Slagbaai National Park, where an area has been dedicated to nature, with a lake, a few hills and plenty of flamingos.
If this sounds rather bleak, it is, but Bonaire has become very popular as a leisure-diving destination because it has a magnificent fringing reef along its whole leeside. This has been made into a marine reserve from the waterline down to 60m.
The tiny capital is called Kralendijk, which means "coral dike", proving that the Dutch took note of the island's reef.
Bonaire is very much a part of the Netherlands, with a modern infrastructure of roads and services. The local people look like Ruud Gullit and speak a language called papiamiento, a mixture of Dutch, Spanish and African languages. It brings a new meaning to the term "Double Dutch". Otherwise English, Dutch and Spanish are widely spoken, and most visitors are from the USA.
The Dutch influence is strong, with plenty of immigrant workers from Holland. The Rum Runners restaurant attached to Habitat is staffed by delectably tanned blonde girls and the rule is strictly look but don't touch. They all seem to be about 6ft tall, so few would dare!
The reef is just a few metres from the shore and you can take a car and shore-dive most of the sites, each of which is clearly signposted with yellow stones. Or you can take the easier option of simply diving from the jetty. There are two at Habitat: Papa Dock for the boats and Baby Dock for divers.
Just off Baby Dock is a massive 5ft tarpon - a silver-sided bonefish - called Charlie. He hangs around especially during night dives, when he feeds on the small fish attracted by divers' lights. Modern, well-equipped dive boats leave every day for different sites, all 60 of which have mooring buoys. There are normally two dives before lunch. Then there is the wreck of the mv Hilma Hooker, a large freighter for those who want a break from the endless coral.
The reefs around Klein (Little) Bonaire, 600 hectares of flat, uninhabited islet half a mile offshore, are available only by boat. There are 26 named and buoyed sites here too. Strong currents can make diving more arduous but the rewards are the stupendously healthy corals and sponges and plenty of fish.
I went to Klein Bonaire each day with Suzy and Jerry from the photo-shop. Jerry pointed out to me the best locations and Suzy proved an excellent model. She had perfect buoyancy control and could vector her body in such a way that she could hover stationary in the strong current. The only problem was that every time I looked through my view-finder I felt I was looking at a shot I had taken before. It all seemed so familiar, even her yellow suit. It took a couple of days for me to realise that Jerry and Suzy had written and illustrated the Pisces Guide to Bonaire and I was almost duplicating some of the photographs from it!
The town pier in Kralendijk is an inauspicious, modern-looking structure but it makes for an enthralling night dive. Covered in corals and sponges, it is a colourful environment stacked with sea-horses, young spiny burrfish and cornetfish.
Among the litter inevitably thrown by thoughtless people from above, I encountered decorator crabs, loaded with sponges, and several lobsters hiding in old car tyres.
An unusual feature of this night dive is the ability to turn off your lamp and continue by the orange glow of the sodium street lights above!
There is not much else to do on Bonaire. It is rather like a liveaboard dive boat that doesn't wobble about. You just take a tank and dive as much as your computer allows. Now that Captain Don's Habitat can supply nitrox to certified nitrox divers, you can dive even more. They have settled on a fixed mix of nitrox 32, with the view that no leisure diver is going to get into depth troubles with it.
The diving is so easy in Bonaire, it seems to suit a lot of people.
Curacao is a bigger, quite different island, only a 15-minute flight from Bonaire. Its huge harbour is visited by cruise ships and freighters, and its dry-dock facilities are famous. A burgeoning oil industry accounts for much of this country's wealth, and the eastern side is almost suburban. The capital Willemstad is built around the vast harbour and its Dutch architecture and overhead swing-bridges could make you think you were in Amsterdam.
A floating pontoon bridge links each side of the city but this has been relegated to pedestrian traffic since they built a spectacular motorway road bridge, which now dominates the skyline. Willemstad has everything you would expect of a modern city, including good hotels and restaurants.
Over on the western side of the island, known as "the other side", things are very different. In this quiet world you will find Habitat Curacao.
This new development duplicates the successful formula of Captain Don's Habitat in Bonaire - Papa Dock, Baby Dock, Rum Runner restaurant and all. There is a Stephen Frink photo-shop and it is intended to hold a Nikonos Shoot-out this year. This event arranged by Nikon attracts hundreds of competing North American photographers.
Habitat Curacao shares the Bonaire philosophy of total diving freedom, which means you have to sit through the same briefing and undergo the same check-out dive. This can be frustrating if you have just spent a week in Bonaire.
Curacao has as many buoyed dive sites on its leeward south side as its sister island. In many ways the diving is similar.
Undoubtedly the best site I visited is called "Seldom" - seldom visited, because the sea can be quite rough here. Seldom is a steep wall close to shore, and there is no mooring buoy. They call it a drift dive because the boat drifts and has to pick up the divers when they surface. British divers will find this no big deal.
This is where I saw shoals of barracuda, endless monster green morays, some swimming in the open, and the whole gamut of Caribbean reef life.
Steering a freighter into Willemstad harbour is not easy. About 18 years ago the captain of the mv Superior Producer, a freighter of around 1500 tonnes displacement, got it wrong and ended up on the rocks.
The vessel rode off into deeper water but was fatally wounded. She can now be found on a perfect even keel at 33m.
When she sank, Superior Producer's hatch covers floated off and her cargo came to the surface. She was loaded mainly with clothes and it is said that every garden in Curacao was hung with washing, as the local people restored to good condition this gift from the sea. We visited the vessel in Habitat's fast twin-Caterpillar dive boat. It took about 40 minutes from the dive centre to a site just off the coast from Willy Wonka's Water Factory. This is the desalination plant that supplies all the island's fresh water, and looks just like a figment of Roald Dahl's imagination.
There is some current but the wreck is covered in a forest of orange corals and sponges and makes a very colourful night dive.
Habitat provides pick-up trucks with crew-cabs for around US$50 a day, giving visiting divers the freedom to shore-dive where they like. While the south of Curacao presents easy and unlimited diving, the north side of the island offers mountainous seas. But there are places where it is possible to get in, and if you want to be sure of seeing plenty of nurse sharks you need to dive here.
Maryn, my strappingly fit Dutch girl guide, took me to such a site. We entered the water in a calm bay but I looked at the mountain of white water beyond its entrance with some trepidation. Maryn assured me that it was better than usual.
There followed a half-mile swim through that surf to the calmer deep water beyond. We swam on our backs with BCs inflated, me trying to protect my camera and flashgun each time a wave crashed over my head. Then it was time to descend and enjoy 45 minutes of peace and quiet before the return journey.
The reef seemed less colourful here, but there were plenty of lobsters and their major predator, the nurse shark. It made a refreshing alternative to the easy diving on the south side of the island, but I was not so sure it had been a good idea when I came back to the surface. The mouth of the bay looked exceedingly small, and it was hard to see where the waves were breaking over the shallow ironstone shore. I managed to avoid clouting my camera on a rock on the long swim back. I wish I could say the same about my knee. Make sure you wear a full wetsuit for this type of diving - I'm glad I did!
Every visitor to Curacao should go to the Seaquarium. I have mixed feelings about these places, but it cannot be denied that for non-divers they encourage an understanding of the ocean environment.
The establishment is managed with due deference to conservation, and marine zoologists are on hand to oversee the well-being of the animals. However, I could not help noticing that the Seaquarium's boat, used for capturing specimens of wildlife, is called Coral Hunter, or that Dutch Schrier, the owner, started his business to supply the American Aquarist market.
Each tank is refreshed by a constant flow of seawater pumped in from the ocean, while a shark channel provides seawater for the large outside pools, which contain full-size nurse and lemon sharks. There are also, in separate sections, adult turtles and big fish like jewfish, tarpon, snook and stingrays. For US$55, divers and non-divers alike are invited to hand-feed rays and tarpon, and other fish such as jacks, durgeon and tangs, under supervision. The more daring can approach the perspex screen that separates this pool from the next, and poke small baitfish through holes to the dozen or so lemon and nurse sharks waiting hungrily on the other side.
It is all very realistic, because the pools incorporate part of the natural reef. The animals look happy enough - even one stingray that allowed itself to be stepped on by an excited but clumsy visitor.
I am told that all the animals have been raised in the Seaquarium from juveniles and know no different. Sadly the sharks can never be rehabilitated and let loose in the sea because they associate the hands of people with food and would be incapable of hunting naturally.
IN my work for Diver I often carry a lot of baggage. In addition to my normal diving equipment and a few clothes, I also take heavy underwater camera gear plus extra items for testing.
I travelled to Bonaire with KLM and therefore had to use its hub at Amsterdam. I normally make special arrangements for my baggage with an airline before I travel, and thought I had done so on this occasion. However, when I got to the check-in desk at Heathrow I was turned away.
By off-loading precious items and carrying my solitary underwater camera separately, I managed to reduce my baggage to 35kg, with hand baggage weighing 10kg. This was to no avail, as I still attracted an excess baggage charge of £216.90 (one way).
As I was travelling at the invitation of the Curacao and Bonaire Tourist Boards, with a view - on their parts - to encouraging British divers to visit their territories, I pointed out that adding £432 to the cost of a holiday would put it out of contention in the Caribbean marketplace.
The KLM staff responded by producing a book of regulations stating special privileges for those with golf, skiing or watersports equipment (windsurfing or water-skiing) but nothing for divers. For reasons of public liability insurance, the weight allowance for all carry-on items was 10kg. I then discovered that my special request for excess allowance was noted in the computer booking after all, although this had been denied by two check-in staff. At this point, my excess baggage charges were miraculously refunded.
However, I was not yet home and dry. I was stopped at the gate by another KLM staff member who told me that my carry-on bag looked too heavy and that the weight allowance was only 6kg.
When I reached Amsterdam to join the main transatlantic flight, I met other divers who told me that their diving equipment had been loaded free as a concession to the fact that Bonaire's main and, some would say, only attraction is scuba-diving. Some Dutch divers even carried their loaded weightbelts with them!
On the return leg via Amsterdam to London, I again encountered resistance to my heavy-looking carry-on bag and was told that the allowance was now only 5kg!
I would suggest that readers are wary of flights that involve a stop-off in Europe. KLM has since told us: "Our standard allowance for all passengers is 20kg in economy class, with one piece of hand luggage up to 10kg. We do advise passengers travelling with any type of special equipment to telephone the airline in advance with clear details of the extra luggage.
"Where possible an extra 10kg is permitted to passengers with diving equipment on specialist routes. However, the ultimate decision lies with the check-in staff on the day of departure, and depends on the total weight of the passenger's luggage and the overall weight of the aircraft."