2018 - Ongoing
Saul Ronaldo Atiliano was diving for lobster in the clear waters of Honduras Caribbean coast when he felt a pressure, a pain in his body. And he knew he'd gotten the sickness that has killed or disabled so many of his Miskito comrades.
"The pressure attacked me deep in the water," said Atiliano, a 45-year-old Miskito who for 25 years has dived for lobster, most of which winds up is exported to the United States.
Thousands of men across the Mosquitia region of Honduras and Nicaragua depend on lobster fishing to eke out a living. And like Atiliano, hundreds have been stricken with the bends — decompression sickness caused when nitrogen bubbles form in divers' bodies. Some are paralyzed. Some are killed.
Safe standard diving techniques call for a gradual ascent to the surface to eliminate the nitrogen that the body's tissues absorb during a dive, and for a limit to the number of dives a person makes in a day.
But many of the divers of Mosquitia dive deeply, surface quickly and then go back for more, racing to collect as much lobster as possible. The boats, where they spend days playing cards and talking among themselves between dives, often have only rudimentary safety equipment and use aging tanks and masks.
Decompression sickness is usually treatable with sessions in such high-pressure, oxygen-rich chambers, but there are only a few available along the coast, and divers often must wait several days before they can be treated — reducing the chances of recovery.
"It's the first accident I've had," Atiliano said, speaking in Miskito through a translator. He appeared exhausted, with a blank stare, after a session of more than three hours in the chamber. He had shown little outward sign of improvement after that early treatment.
Cedrack Waldan Mendoza, the physical therapist operating the chamber, said the divers are driven by poverty, and even if injured, return to the boats.
"You run into them in the street and ask them why they're going (back to diving) and they say it's because their kids are hungry," Waldan Mendoza said. "When someone tells you that their kids are hungry there's no need to ask another question."
Atiliano, as many others, are among the most vulnerable cogs in the lobster industry, which generated $40 million in sales for Honduras in 2017, nearly all of it from the U.S. market.
Atiliano said he expects to return to sea, not because he wants to, but for lack of options.