Diving for lobsters in the Caribbean waters around Honduras provides a vital source of income for the local indigenous population in La Mosquitia, but it’s an extremely hazardous occupation.
After his last dive, 44-year-old Ernesto McLean lost the ability to walk.
“I got dizzy, I had a pain in my stomach and when I got out of the water I tried to stand up but my legs were paralysed,” McLean said.
He and La Mosquitia’s 100,000 strong indigenous community in the far east of the Central American country have been in mourning since July 3, when 27 fishermen died and another six went missing after the Capitan Waly boat, with 88 people aboard, sank.
The lobster fishing season had only opened two days earlier, when thousands of fishermen using rudimentary oxygen cylinders clambered aboard boats, like every year, to go in search of the prized seafood that constitutes their main, if not only, source of revenue for the entire year.
The season, which lasts eight months, begins with people renting boats and hiring divers from the poor Gracias a Dios state, says Oswaldo Echeverria, the president of the Association of La Mosquitia divers.
But there is a lack of government control on the industry, particularly in terms of health and safety.
Workers complain of being subject to labour exploitation while many have died and thousands more have suffered severe and irreversible physical disabilities.
Back in 2004, the local handicapped divers’ association asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to intervene to force Honduran authorities to regulate commercial under-water fishing.
The association claims that some bosses have even threatened workers with a gun to force them to dive down as much as 40m without adequate equipment.
Thousands have suffered from decompression sickness.
The latest health ministry statistics, which already date back to 2004, show that of the 9,000 professional divers in La Mosquitia, 4,200 are handicapped.
Boat captains pay divers $6.60 per kilogram of lobster.
On a two-week fishing expedition, the most successful, or luckiest, divers can collect up to 180kg of crustaceans, while others might only bring in 18kg, Echeverria said.
Most of the produce is exported to the US.
Echeverria says things won’t improve for divers until authorities “grant financing” so they can buy their own boats and not be so dependent on owners and contractors.
Since his 1998 accident, McLean moves around in a wheelchair or by using crutches and has reinvented himself as a cobbler.
“I don’t have a house, [friends] put me up at night,” he said. “I’m in a bad situation.”
It was 50 hours after emerging from the water that he was taken to hospital at nearby Puerto Lempira for hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which reverses the effects of decompression in the joints, bones and muscular tissue – as long as it’s done within 24 hours.
Jaime Lemus, 60, is another who walks with crutches now since coming back up from a 36.5m dive in 2004.
“All these years without getting any help,” he complained.
He was another whose hyperbaric oxygen therapy came too late and now he survives by transporting passengers on the Caratasca lagoon – the largest in Honduras – in his canoe for $8 a day: when there are customers.
Around 15-18 divers a month need hospital treatment in Puerto Lempira for decompression, physiotherapist Danyra Tylor said.
But they need to receive treatment for between three months and a year.
“They’re too poor and they stop” the treatment and physiotherapy exercises before they’ve recovered, she said.
The Mosquitia region is almost entirely isolated from the rest of the world by an impenetrable jungle, with access only by air or sea.
The local population lives in miserable conditions with no electricity or running water.
Drug-traffickers identified it as an ideal operational base far from prying eyes for the cocaine trade heading towards the US.
It’s provided an alternative source of income for some, according to a local who insisted on anonymity.
When surprised by drug control authorities, traffickers throw bags of cocaine overboard, which local divers then recover and sell to small-time dealers.