On 9 November, 2018, just after his 64th birthday, Donald (Don) Canestro, was diving with his friend Dan Richards, in Cambria California. When he surfaced near their kayak, he said he did not feel well, then passed out. Dan got him to shore, performed CPR, and arranged for a helicopter to take Don to the hospital, but Don, who had survived so much before, died from cardiac complications.
It is ironic that Don, a former Dive Safety Officer, died while diving. For so many years, he was the person others relied on because of his knowledge, expertise and prowess underwater. But it is fitting that Don’s last day was spent in the ocean. Don was a dedicated waterman: he ocean swam, surfed, free-dove, scuba dived, and played underwater hockey. He could recite Navy dive tables, rebuild a regulator, and captain a research vessel. And Don knew more about the ocean and its inhabitants than most marine biologists.
Don’s professional life revolved around his love for marine biology and natural history. After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1977, he worked as a park ranger for the East Bay Regional Parks. When he tired of motorists running over his traffic cones, he filled them with cement, and watched the damage unfold. He loved the seasonal work because it allowed him to grow his hair out, travel much of the year, and keep in shape for the next triathlon. While traveling through Baja, Don got interested in diving. He became a dive instructor, then a Channel Islands National Park diver. In 1988, Don earned his M.S. in marine biology at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories by studying canopy effects on the growth and survivorship of understory kelp. Some of his Moss Landing cohort moved on to UC Santa Barbara to pursue a PhD. Hearing the news about sunshine and pretty women, Don headed south to UCSB to work as a marine biologist. This meant diving the Santa Barbara Channel, Antarctica, and French Polynesia to research topics ranging from offshore oil drilling to fish population growth. At UCSB, Don integrated with the graduate students as a roommate, mentor, basketball teammate, and romantic interest. He fell in love often - and got his heart broken perhaps as much. He’d famously invite his female companions to a home-cooked dinner consisting of abalone he’d pried off the rocks. And it would be the best abalone they ever tasted.
From 1993-2000 Don was the Dive Safety Officer at UC Santa Cruz, where he deepened his commitment to training skilled scientific divers. His mentorship in the diving community is legendary, and his connections to Santa Cruz remain deep. But by 2000, Don and his new wife Miranda were ready for a change. They found it when he became the first and only director of the UCSB-managed Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve in Cambria, CA.
These were happy, purposeful and satisfying years. Don reconnected with his first daughter Jessica, and his younger daughters, Carla and Stella were born. The family spent their days caring for a wild piece of coastline and a rustic ranch. Nights were spent in a wonderful, old, small adobe home with panoramic ocean views. Don learned to enjoy ranching and terrestrial biology. Managing the reserve integrated his professional skills, scientific interest, and gregarious nature. He could fix anything, especially something heavy or dangerous, but his real forte was promoting research, education and outreach to thousands of students and scientists from across California and the world. It will be hard to fill his big shoes at Rancho Marino.
Perhaps the best word to describe Don is “BIG”. Big body, big hands, big muscles, big mustache, big smile, big laugh, big attitude, but mostly, big heart. Don’s bigness flowed from his Italian heritage, in what was almost a caricature. He was a great cook and loved to feed people. A fantastic storyteller, he laughed loudly at his own anecdotes, and more than occasionally at his flatulence. He’d milk a goat, tell a joke about teats, and then make you a latte. If you were lucky, he’d pen some sarcastic lyrics, and set them to a blues riff on his harmonica to roast you at your wedding or retirement or birthday. Don was loud as hell in just about everything he did.
Young Don was a rascal and hellion, known in Mexico as “El Testosterone Caminando.” But Don evolved as he aged. He stopped driving through Baja at night after hitting a cow. He grudgingly gave up his moustache. He was a playboy and reluctant parent early on, and a loyal husband and doting father in round two (including teaching his two youngest daughters to SCUBA dive this past summer).
Countless people with connections to Don mourn his passing. Our lives are far richer for having known him. He showed us how to appreciate nature and enjoy life to the fullest. Don also gave us the courage to do things we would not have tackled on our own, whether it be to paddle out into big surf, or drive the Baja peninsula, or replace a drive shaft (usually somewhere on the Baja peninsula). He also set the bar for what it meant to be a friend. And while many of us felt Don to be one of our closest friends, he was, in fact, a close friend to hundreds. He was not only compassionate and sensitive, but he was also perhaps the most gregarious, and generous people-person to walk the Earth and dive its waters.
Don Canestro leaves behind three daughters: Jessica Norkoski, 33, Carla Canestro, 15, Stella Canestro, 13, grandson, Henry Norkoski, 1 and his wife Miranda Canestro. A celebration of Don’s life is planned for March 2019 in Cambria.