Not even my good friend and sporadic dive buddy Tim O'Keefe had been able to
prepare me for my first visit to Habitat. For seven years I'd listened to Tim recall, in reverent tones, his decade of adventures in that Eden by the seal of Bonaire. But it was his obvious affection and admiration for a legendary character named Cap'n Don Stewart that spawned devotion not only to Bonaire, Tim admitted, but also to the sea itself.
"Habitat is not a hotel. It's not really a resort. It's philosophy and a lifestyle for those whose souls belong to the sea. You have to experience it to understand," he told me many times.
Tim, a sensible and sensitive man who shared my love/hate relationship with both structured writing and regimented diving, was no unglued middle-aged professional in search of an aquatic guru. His verbalized vignettes of diving with Cap'n Don and happier days at Habitat always made me little envious. Like all writers, I thrive on good stories and it seemed that Habitat was a "10" on that scale.
Convinced that Habitat was hiding an unusualy diving experience that would continue to elude me if I didn't pack and book a two and one-half hour ALM flight from Miami soon, I set aside five days in early March.
Habitat was the most unusual dive resort I'd ever seen. Everyone I met seemed to have perfected the art of congenial informality--as if they had finally come home and all newcomers wandering around looking curious were potential family.
The Habitat plant matched my definition of raw beauty. Cap'n Don has preserved the natural Bonaire environment surrounding the nine whitewashed cottages; four single and six double economy rooms, affectionately referred to as "the monks' quarters." Tall finger cacti, prickly pear cacti, sea grape, coconut palms, aloe, bougainvillea, cordia and other indegenous flora thrive on this site. At least a dozen colorful species of birds darted back and forth among the trees and I finally saw several of the large blue lizards found only on Bonaire. This wasn't a resort--it was a refuge.
The cozy one and two bedroom cottages, with kitchenettes, resemble older Bonairean structures with red-tiled roofs and louvered windows. All are only a 60 second walk from the dive shop, which sits on the bluff overlooking the Caribbean and Klein Bonaire. The main building now includes the office and reception area, including Cap'n Don's computer center; open air Quarter Deck Restaurant and Captain's Bar. To the right, overlooking the dock and dive shop is a small sand beach.
The dive shop is the only one of its kind in the Caribbean: It's open 24 hours a day. The slogan of this diving experience is "diving freedom," and that's no come-on. Divers can take their tanks and gear and go shore diving on the protected reefs off Habitat any time of the day or night. The shop itself is a new, open-air facility consisting of a clasroom, photo lab, equipment repair facility, compressor room and spacious patio area.
Dave Serlin, the only PADI master scuba instructor in the Netherlands Antilles, oversees the dive shop operation. Like the rest of the expatriate staff, Dave has been at Habitat for four years and hopes to stay indefinitely.
The dive facilities at Habitat are not pretentious and regimented--divers are assigned a tank number, but that's as far as the discipline routine goes. Other than the obvious conscientious reminders to divers to take the sport seriously and follow safety rules and procedures, the staff is there to assist and advise, but not to police and dictate dive plans. Those who want to go on scheduled boat dives in the morning and afternoon are urged to reserve space early, by putting their tank number on the sign-up boards of one of the four boats in the fleet, because boats are limited to only 12 divers to prevent crowding.
I didn't realize this before I arrived; Habitat is the only PADI five Star Training Facility, not only in Bonaire, but in the entire southern Caribbean. There are almost 20 courses available--in five languages: English, Spanish, German, Dutch and Papamiento. They range from resort and scuba review through full certification. This includes the Habitat gold certification course that spans 12 days and 18 dives. It is the most comprehensive and personalized course available anywhere. Advanced courses include everything from rescue diver to equipment specialist and assistant instructor (on request).
One of the finest reefs off Bonaire, as well as a superb coral drop-off, lies just 100 yards off the Habitat dock. Out in that area is a special option exclusive to Habitat, Dee Scarr's Touch the Sea program. Dee is an author, underwater photographer and aquatic soulmate of a variety of sea creatures. She has tamed many reef inhabitants and will take divers on a special Touch the Sea three dive package to experience this unusual communion with her freeswimming zoo. She presents weekly slide shows on this subject at Habitat every Monday at 9:00 pm.
Cap'n Don could be the subject of an entire article himself. Born in California, his lifestyle has rivaled that of the actor he resembles, Errol Flynn. His love affair with Bonaire began in 1962 when he dropped the anchor his schooner Valerie Queen in Kralendjik Harbor, en route to Antigua. He never left.
That year he established his first dive operation on Bonaire and a year later, its first hotel, the Flamingo Beach, on the site once occupied by a German detention camp. In 1972, he helped reopen the defunct Hotel Bonaire and founded Aquaventure, the island's first full service dive operation.
Habitat, which he described as "an age old concept just waiting for a place to happen, a totally ocean oriented resort," was founded in 1976.
But it is his role as a crusader for marine conservation that has won Cap'n Don a coterie of followers and the recognition of the dive industry not only on Bonaire, but also throughout the Caribbean and North America. He worked closely with the Bonaire government to establish the Bonaire Marine Park and enforce laws prohibiting spearfishing or collecting of any marine creatures in Bonaire's waters. He also established a network of permanent moorings on regularly visited dive sites to prevent destruction by anchors. And, in 1984 his pet project of the 1970s, the organization for Caribbean Underwater Resort Owners (CURO) was incorporated into the Caribbean Hoteal Association (CHA), a move praised as a step toward uniting Caribbean countries in awareness of marine conservation.
"I've always felt that 'sport diver' should involve more than just using the sea as a playground for amusement. That's only part of it. From hobbyists, we become professionals. Let's give divers an identity--let's educate them as to who they are and what their responsibilities are in preserving and protecting the earth's last frontier," Cap'n Don said.
"We're expanding Habitat as a community dedicated not only to awareness of the sea environment, but also to man's interaction with the land here. We've developed a comprehensive program of activities for guests--that's Morey Ruza's pet project. He can arrange nature hikes, birdwatching sessions, spelunking, horseback tours, rock climbing and deep sea fishing--name your interest and he can arrange it," Cap'n Don added.
Morey and his wife Linda came to Bonaire 13 years ago and were regular visitors for nine years before settling as staff at Habitat in 1981. Once a workaholic in New York's garment manufacturing business, Morey is now part of the fabric of the Habitat community and a dedicated defender and promoter of its concept. Linda contributes her talents as helpmate--and is currently at work creating the first bagel bakery on Bonaire. Natural bagels are now part of the regular menu at the Quarter Deck.
Don and Morey brought out a set of blueprints for Cap'n Don's most ambitious landlocked undertaking so far, a four and one-half acre island community called the Hamlet, consisting of 29 villas set in landscaped gardens. They will overlook the Caribbean and a strip of sand beach bordering a small lagoon with excellent snorkeling just beyond. The site adjoins Habitat and the first two bedroom villa expected to be completed by the end of summer.
One of Cap'n Don's offshore projects is Memorial Reef, 200 feet off Habitat, a 40 foot side of virgin reef which has been earmarked as a tribute to past pioneers of the oceans. Cap'n Don's plan was to place a flagstaff on the site, embedded in the reef and ensure that a divers down flag marked the location year-round--to identify "the last frontier, a gesture offered to those who have gone before us, the pioneers of earth's last frontier, like Philippe Cousteau."
Another discovery was the conch mari-culture research underway next to Habitat. (The site was donated by Cap'n Don.) This research is supervised by a young marine biologist, Robbie Henson.
Because of the residual effects of a tenacious Floridian virus, I wasn't able to log as much bottom time as I would have liked, but that allowed me more hours to absorb the special ambience of Habitat and spend more time becoming acquainted with its creator. Another discovery: Cap'n Don Stewart is a first rate writer. He shared some of his manuscripts with me. They are irrelevant, earthy and descriptive seafaring adventures.
There are a variety of definitions of "habitat" in Webster's, but I like this one best: "the place or type of site where a plant or animal naturally lives and grows." Especially in terms of awareness of the earth's last frontier, Habitat fits that description for those sensitive enough to appreciate this unusual community by, and of, the sea.
For information and reservations contact Habitat U.S.A., P.O. Box 237, Waitsfield, Vermont 05673; (802) 496-5067.
Currie, Barbara A. "Cap'n Dan's Habitat on beautiful Bonaire." Skin Diver June 1985: 95+. General OneFile. Web. 12 Nov. 2009.
Gale Document Number:A3794218
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