AP PHOTOS: Lobster divers risk injury, death in Honduras

PUERTO LEMPIRA, Honduras (AP) — Saul Ronaldo Atiliano was diving for lobster in the clear waters off 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 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.

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Lobster divers risk injury, death in Honduras
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Lobster divers risk injury, death in Honduras
In this Sept. 9, 2018 photo, a diver holds onto his catch of lobsters during a fishing journey in the Miskito coast near Cay Savannah, Honduras. A diver makes 75 lempiras ($3) per pound of lobster. An average 10-pound daily haul of lobster is a windfall for people in one of the most impoverished regions of the Americas, so many take the risk, and many suffer for it. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 4, 2018 photo, diver Saul Ronaldo Atiliano, 45, waits to be lifted onto the dock after traveling via boat to Puerto Lempira, Honduras, to receive decompression sickness therapy in a hyperbaric chamber. "The pressure attacked me deep in the water," said Atiliano, who for 25 years has dived for lobster, most of which winds up in the United States. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 10, 2018 photo, Miskito divers play a game of cards on a ship's stern as they are transported home after a two week fishing trip, near Savannah Cay, Honduras. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 11, 2018 photo, Miskito divers sleep on hammocks on their last night of a 13-day fishing trip, surrounded by empty oxygen tanks, left, and their catch of sea cucumbers, right lower corner, as they are transported from Cay Savannah to Kaukira, Honduras. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 10, 2018 photo, Miskito fishermen push a boat onto the shore on Savannah Cay, Honduras, at the end of a fishing trip. Thousands of men across the Mosquitia region of Honduras and Nicaragua depend on lobster and sea cucumber fishing to ease poverty. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 9, 2018 photo, Miskito divers eat a breakfast of rice, beans and bananas before the start of their work day, in Cay Savannah, Honduras. When not in Caribbean waters the divers are lodged in a small wooden house provided by the boat owners. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 10, 2018 photo, Miskito fishermen return home after a two-week fishing trip near Savannah Cay, Honduras. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 10, 2018 photo, a diver prepares to plunge into Caribbean waters in the Miskito coast, near Cay Savannah, Honduras, in search of sea cucumbers under a heavy rain. A diver, who makes seven lempiras or about 28 U.S. cents per sea cucumber, will catch anywhere between 10 and 30 in a day. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 9, 2018 photo, a worker cleans a batch of lobsters near Cay Savannah, Honduras. After the lobsters are cleaned they are stored in the ship's large freezers. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 9, 2018 photo, a boat owner tallies up the number of cigarettes consumed by the divers on their two-week fishing trip, to be subtracted from their pay earned diving for sea cucumbers, in Cay Savannah, Honduras. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 9, 2018 photo, Miskito diver Ernesto Ronas, 30, holds onto his catch of lobsters during a fishing journey in the Miskito coast near Cay Savannah, Honduras. A diver makes 75 lempiras ($3) per pound of lobster. An average 10-pound daily haul of lobster is a windfall for people in one of the most impoverished regions of the Americas, so many take the risk, and many suffer for it. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 5, 2018 photo, supervised by a Honduran Army soldier, students practice their routine they plan to perform in an independence military parade, in Puerto Lempira, Honduras. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 4, 2018 photo, diver Saul Ronaldo Atiliano, 45, is lifted onto the dock after traveling via boat to Puerto Lempira, Honduras, to receive decompression sickness therapy in a hyperbaric chamber. "The pressure attacked me deep in the water," said Atiliano, who for 25 years has dived for lobster, most of which winds up in the United States. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
This Sept. 4, 2018 photo shows palm trees as the day begins to break in Irlaya, Honduras. With more than 60 per cent of its 9 million population living in poverty, Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and the Mosquitia is one of the most impoverished areas. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 9, 2018 photo, Miskito diver Ernesto Ronas, 30, deep dives for lobster during a fishing trip near Cay Savannah, in the Miskito coast, Honduras. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, Sonia Wills, left, accompanied by relatives, mourns over the coffin that contains the remains of her 31-year-old son Miskito diver Oscar Salomon Charly, during a wake in her home in Cabo Gracias a Dios, Nicaragua. Thousands of men across the Mosquitia region of Honduras and Nicaragua depend on lobster fishing to ease poverty, and hundreds have been stricken with the bends. Some end up paralyzed. Some killed. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, relatives and friends carry the coffin that contains the remains of Miskito diver Oscar Salomon Charly, 31, to be transported via a boat to a nearby cemetery, in Cabo Gracias a Dios, Nicaragua. Charly died in Honduras after suffering a severe case of decompression sickness. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, a woman mourns over the coffin that contains the remains of 31-year-old Miskito diver Oscar Salomon Charly, during a wake in his mother's home in Cabo Gracias a Dios, Nicaragua. Thousands of men across the Mosquitia region of Honduras and Nicaragua depend on lobster fishing to ease poverty, and hundreds have been stricken with the bends. Some end up paralyzed. Some killed. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
In this Sept. 9, 2018 photo, Rudy Emus Alfred, 19, dives for sea cucumbers near Cay Savannah, in the Miskito coast, Honduras. According to Miskito mythology, the mermaid Liwa Mairin punishes divers who over harvest from the sea with what divers call "el golpe" or "fracasar", also known as the bends. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
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With more than 60 percent of its 9 million people living in poverty, Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and the Mosquitia is one of the most impoverished areas.

Among exotic, tropical vegetation along the Caribbean coast, the region is sprinkled with small fishing villages where indigenous villagers live in clapboard houses. A sign of the poverty — and also the innocence of childhood — kids play with trucks made of plastic juice boxes with lids for wheels. For many grown-ups, the only option they've found to cope with poverty is diving, no matter the risks.

In the Mosquitia, diving permeates everyday life. In the fishing village of Kaukira, worshippers are called to church by the sound of a hammer on a diving tank instead of a bell.

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.

Just how many have been stricken is somewhat unclear, though all agree it's a large number for such small communities.

Jorge Gomez Santos, a former president of the Association of Disabled Honduran Miskito Divers, said this month that at least 2,200 Miskitos now work on the boats, and he said at least 1,300 have been disabled since 1980. Gomez, who uses a wheelchair, said 14 have died this year alone.

A study more than a decade ago cited by the Pan American Health Organization reported there were around 9,000 divers in the Mosquitia, and around 4,200 — 47 percent — were disabled by decompression sickness. Nearly all, it found, had suffered symptoms.

A diver makes 75 lempiras ($3) per pound of lobster and 7 lempiras (28 cents) for each sea cucumber. An average 10-pound (4.5-kilogram) daily haul of lobster is a windfall in one of the most impoverished regions of the Americas, so many take the risk, and many suffer for it, like Atiliano, who dove for 25 years without a problem until that day in September.

The father of 10 was paralyzed on the boat, which didn't reach the docks for another day and a half. Fellow divers then drove him about 10 blocks to the hospital with a U.S.-donated hyperbaric chamber in Puerto Lempira, the area's largest city.

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.

Another patient at the chamber was Charles "Charly" Melendez, a 28-year-old Miskito who said he been diving since he was 16 and had harvested 60 pounds of lobster on the day in November 2017 that he was injured.

Even now, after nine sessions, he hasn't recovered. For a man who always made his living diving, it's a nightmare being confined to a wheelchair.

"I still can't stand up by myself," he said. "I can't sit for a long time; after an hour my body hurts."

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 and Melendez 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.

"If I recover, by necessity and for lack of work I'll have to go back to diving," he said.

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Associated Press writer Freddy Cuevas contributed to this report from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

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