Don Canestro: 1954-2018

Don Canestro was many things — free diver, repairman, marine biologist — but for many people, he’s the one who taught them how to be safe and enjoy the underwater world.
Matt Perko | UC Santa Barbara

On November 9, 2018, just after his 64th birthday, 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, and then passed out. His friend 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 scuba diving. For so many years, he was the person others relied on to keep them safe because of his extensive knowledge, expertise, and prowess underwater. Perhaps it is fitting that Don’s last day was spent in the ocean. He was a dedicated waterman: He did regular ocean swims; he surfed; he could free-dive to 100 feet; he scuba dived and played underwater hockey. He could recite U.S. 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 for the rest of the year he could grow his hair out, travel, and keep in shape for the next triathlon.

While traveling through Baja, Don got interested in diving. He became a dive instructor and then a Channel Islands National Park diver. In 1988, Don earned his master’s degree in marine biology at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories studying kelp. Some of his Moss Landing cohorts moved on to UC Santa Barbara to pursue a PhD. Hearing 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 to 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. But by 2000, Don and his wife, Miranda, were ready for a change. They found it when he became director of the UCSB-managed Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve in Cambria.

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. 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 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, hands, muscles, mustache, smile, laugh, and attitude, but mostly big heart. 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 Donald Canestro was a rascal and hellion, known in Mexico as “El Testosterone Caminando.” Don evolved as he aged. He quit driving at night through Baja after hitting a cow. He was a playboy and reluctant parent early on, and a loyal husband and doting father in round two (including teaching his two youngest to scuba dive this past summer).

Many people with connections to Don mourn his passing. He showed us how to appreciate nature and enjoy life to the fullest. He 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. 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 his three daughters, Jessica Norkoski (33), Carla Canestro (15), and Stella Canestro (13); one-year-old grandson, Henry Norkoski; and wife, Miranda Canestro. A celebration of Don’s life is planned for March 2019 in Cambria.


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