Captain Don’s Promise

A tale about what’s killing coral and making sponges the dominant animal

By William Goodwin

In 1897 the Irish poet William Butler Yeats was writing about his fellow poet William Blake when he said, “There have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the future mixed her breath into their breath and shook her hair about them … so in the beginning of any work, there is a moment when we understand more perfectly than we understand again until all is finished.”

If Yeats had been alive today, he might have written those words with Don Stewart in mind.

Captain Don, as he preferred to be called, had a vision of the future for the Caribbean island of Bonaire and he made it one of his life’s goals to protect the island’s coral reefs. Captain Don was a forward-looking environmentalist though it was sometimes hard to show him gratitude. Toward the end he became crusty and grumpy, hard of hearing, and often spoke in riddles. It didn’t help his pride when the owners to whom he sold the dive resort he founded so many years ago trundled him out once a week for a “Meet the Captain” sideshow that was more humiliation than communication.

Until he died in 2014, Captain Don lived with his gal Janet at their kunuku about half-way between Bonaire’s wave-lashed east coast and the tranquil west coast. Their home, which he had equipped with solar cells and a windmill, was an environmentally-integrated house amidst the gardens and greenhouses of their landscape business. Inside the battery-powered compound, his house evoked comparisons to a boat, no surprise to anyone familiar with Captain Don’s history. Back in California when he was in his early thirties, he had taken the earnings from his invention of the sliding glass door and bought a vintage wooden schooner he named Valerie Queen. That was when he transformed himself into a sea captain and started running sailing charters off the California coast while trying to break into the movies, hoping especially for swashbuckler roles. Under-appreciated in Hollywood, he eventually sailed the Queen through the Panama Canal and into the Caribbean where he longed to live the life of a pirate. In 1962, tired of sailing against the trade winds of the Southern Caribbean, he dropped anchor off the shores of the small island of Bonaire near the Venezuelan coast, and there he found his place in the world.

Captain Don Stewart and his gal Janet in 2012.

A Pirate Invents Ecotourism

Captain Don was thirty-seven when he first stepped onto Bonaire. He was greeted by a donkey. The island’s wild donkeys were almost as numerous as the human population and tourism on what was formerly a World War II prison island was non-existent. To supplement the “63 cents” he claims he had in his pocket when he arrived, Captain Don dove beneath the pristine waters where he took up spearfishing and collecting tropical fish for export.

A view of some of the 150-year-old stone huts where slaves lived while harvesting and loading salt on Bonaire. The obelisk marked the landing spot for boats that came ashore for the salt.

Bonaire’s wild donkeys are the descendants of those used in the days when salt was collected by slaves from the sea water evaporation ponds at the south end of the island. The bagged salt was loaded onto the donkeys for transport to the shore where ships waited. Visitors can still see the tiny “slave houses” along the shore where the slaves slept after a day of loading salt in the tropical sun. Today sea salt is still harvested from evaporation ponds shared with flocks of flamingos, but instead of slaves and donkeys, bulldozers and trucks haul the salt to conveyors running over the coastal road and out onto a pier where it pours into special container ships bound for Europe.

Today salt is harvested by the Cargill Corporation in a modern mechanized operation. The dried salt is carried by conveyor belt out to the end of this pier where it pours into a ship bound for the icy roads of Europe.
Within a year on the island Captain Don noticed the growing numbers of scuba divers coming to the island had specific needs that were barely being met. He responded by opening one of the first dive resorts in the Caribbean where traveling divers could rent tanks and weights and catch rides on boats or trucks to the reefs.

After hosting a big spearfishing contest one day, Don was looking at the piles of dead fish taken from the reefs when he had an epiphany. He could see how the growing crowds of careless divers were trashing the reefs and he decided he would become a force for change. In the following years, aided by a small number of friends, he changed the face of scuba diving in the Caribbean and eventually the entire world. He hung his spear gun on the wall, quit collecting tropical fish and swore that from that day forward he would spread the word “…so that all within my influence shall strive to protect the sea.”

He began by changing his dive resort operations to minimize any damage caused by divers, and in the process he unwittingly became one of the founders of the movement that today is ecotourism. He convinced Bonaire’s government to ban all spearfishing and outlaw the use of gloves by divers to make the point “You don’t touch the reef!” He pioneered and named many of the island’s world-famous dive sites (many bear the names of his girlfriends), and he installed permanent moorings for dive boats so they would no longer have to drop coral-wrecking anchors on the reef. Word of his work spread and today virtually every dive resort in the world uses a version of Captain Don’s reef-saving methods.

Captain Don always saw himself as a rebel, a man apart, a pirate if you will. When years ago a vessel went aground on the rough eastern shore of the island, Captain Don was in on the gallant effort to salvage the wreck’s contents. During the operation, he injured his foot and ankle so badly that many years later, complications from the injury led to the amputation of that leg from the knee down. True to his self-image, he insisted on fitting a wooden peg leg instead of a more modern prosthesis and his old dream of becoming a pirate was finally, at least in appearance, becoming true.

Don Heads Off in a Stinking Direction

In the last years of his life, Don’s promise to protect the life of the sea took a new direction. One evening at his kunuku eating take-out from Pasa Bon Pizza, he suddenly blurted out in his gruff voice, “When you leave Bonaire and go back home, what do you leave here?”

Don frequently spoke in riddles. I was baffled. Never one for delicacy or restraint, he answered his own question, saying, “Shit! You and all those thousands of tourists and cruise ships leave your shit here!”

We were in the middle of eating, but that did not matter to Captain Don. He tore into a monologue about how the reefs were heading for ruination because the government of Bonaire refused to face facts and pay for a better sewage treatment system. He declared that all the hotels, homes, businesses and even the cruise ships that paid “a few dimes to make it go away,” relied on large trenches dug in the interior of the island to dispose of their sewage. This was bad, very bad, for the reefs around the island

A cruise ship looms over Kralendijk, the main town on Bonaire. Cruise ships pay a relatively small fee to the government of Bonaire for making their waste “disappear.”

Captain Don explained those trenches are located in highly porous fossil coral limestone, and, he growled, “The idiots running the businesses on this island refuse to take responsibility. They’re pretending that this stuff magically stays in the ground and doesn’t seep out into the ocean and kill the reefs.”

He was right on all points. Not long after that conversation, I spoke with Blue McRight, an artist from California who is a huge fan of Bonaire’s reefs. Blue informed me that she was a volunteer for a grassroots effort to place water quality sensors at 20 locations on the reefs of Bonaire. The purpose of the sensor program, she explained, was to identify concentrations and sources of pollution in the water with the goal of proving what Captain Don and others already knew: the contents of the inland sewage pits were flowing into the sea. The next step would be to use that proof to persuade the government to build adequate sewage treatment facilities.

Sanctioned by Bonaire’s Marine Park and championed by the Park’s manager at that time, Ramon de Leon, the sensor program rapidly gained momentum. A marine environmental biologist, Burton Jones at the University of Southern California, agreed to provide relatively inexpensive sensors utilizing new technology. Most of the biologists and volunteers involved in the project were not paid because those parties responsible for disposing of the sewage were not interested in learning the truth and they refused to support the sensor project. So a team of volunteers was organized to deploy and maintain the sensor arrays and to collect and analyze the data they produced. The only need for funding was to pay for the sensors. Finding those funds was Blue McRight’s job, and she pulled it off by organizing a series of grassroots fundraisers.

What Is Killing the Coral?

Back on Bonaire a few months later, I met with Ramon de Leon at the Bonaire Marine Park office. I listened for almost an hour as Ramon, in his smooth Uruguayan accent, spoke about how the sensor program was indeed demonstrating the contents of the inland pits were seeping through the porous coral rock into Bonaire’s waters and causing something called eutrophication. He promised to explain that term over dinner.

I was already seated in the island’s only Tex-Mex restaurant when Ramon strolled in, barefoot and smiling. Our conversations ranged far and wide, but most of the talk centered on the threats facing Bonaire’s reefs, in particular, something called eutrophication.

Eutrophication, I learned, is the scientific term for an increase in compounds containing nitrogen and phosphorus. These elements are referred to as “nutrients” in this setting because they greatly accelerate the growth and reproduction of reef-smothering algae and a particular class of sponges that can destroy coral reefs. With plenty of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, these destructive organisms can take advantage of any natural or man-made weakness in the reef community caused by, for example, storms or excessively warm water, and overgrow the corals and most of the other sponges.

Eutrophication is not an issue only for Bonaire’s waters — it is a worldwide problem. In many places, coral reefs have already been replaced by hardier sponges and and algae. The biodiversity has suffered greatly as coral reefs become sponge reefs.

These Social Feather Duster worms are one of the few organisms on this reef not overgrown by fast-growing macroalgae nourished with the phosphorus and nitrogen from sewage and fertilizer run-off (eutrophication). Every year more reefs look like this, especially during the summer months when eutrophication causes the algae to expand rapidly. This may look like an extreme example, but eutrophication is common throughout the world’s reefs where advanced sewage treatment is lacking.

Every problem involving the oceans is about humans. Some damage to reefs and sea life is caused by natural causes, like storms or tsunamis, but most of the damage comes from human activities, including over-fishing, acidification and eutrophication. There can be no doubt the human causes are far more insidious than the natural causes. Eutrophication, the prime example of human activity degrading ocean habitat quality in many places around the planet, is always traceable to either agricultural runoff, sewage (treated or otherwise), or both.

On Bonaire’s reefs, especially those close to the island’s population and tourism center of Kralendijk, elevated nitrogen and phosphorus levels demonstrated by the sensor program have already damaged the reefs and the biodiversity of life forms, and the rate of damage is still increasing. But recently the island’s government was re-organized to bring Bonaire closer to the Netherlands, politically speaking. Consequently, once the data from the sensor program and other research convinced the authorities of the need for a proper sewage treatment plant, the Dutch government authorized the funding. In 2011 the first plant went into operation with a capacity for removing 34 pounds (74 kilograms) of nitrogen and 30 pounds (65 kilograms) of phosphate per day. An entire sewage piping system and a second plant went on line in 2015.

Perhaps somewhere the ghost of Captain Don danced a jig on that peg leg of his, but knowing his skeptical mind, he probably would have said no, not yet. Just wait…

The future health of Bonaire’s beautiful reefs, the first reefs to be strongly protected by national laws, is not a sure thing. For example, Bonaire’s cruise ship numbers, while nothing like Cozumel or Grand Cayman, have grown four hundred per cent in the last ten years and they continue to grow. … and you know what all those visitors are leaving behind. Many question if the money and the political will exist to continue protecting the reefs as the pressures on the environment continue. And of course the human population is increasing in attractive coastal areas everywhere.

Rather than dancing a jig, the Captain must surely be rolling over in his grave.

Bound to the ocean and reflecting mixed genetics, I am compelled to write about the sea while living in Colorado.

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