Saul Ronaldo Atiliano plunges into the blue-green waters of the Caribbean Sea off the Honduras coast. He is diving for Panulirus argus, or Caribbean lobsters, just as he has for the last 25 years. Down, down he dives; up, up he swims, over and over. Each time, he works to grab a spiny, olive-brown crustacean. Suddenly, Atiliano feels intense pressure. He has never felt it before, yet he knows this problem: Decompression sickness has killed or disabled many of his friends.
“The pressure attacked me deep in the water,” says Atiliano. The 45-year-old is a native of the Mosquitia region, one of Honduras’ poorest areas.
Thousands of residents, called “Miskitos,” depend on lobster fishing to eke out a living. A Miskito diver makes about $3 per pound of lobster and 28 cents for a sea cucumber. In one of the most impoverished regions of the Americas, the money from an average 10-pound lobster haul is enormous.
Many divers take the risk—and many, like Atiliano, suffer for it. Since 1980, at least 1,300 Miskitos have been disabled with decompression sickness, also known as DCS or “the bends.” Fourteen died last year. DCS occurs when nitrogen bubbles form in divers’ bodies as they surface.
Sometimes the bends paralyze. Sometimes they kill. One day a diver might not be affected at all. Another day, the bends could be severe.
Safe diving requires a slow rise to the surface. That helps rid the body of nitrogen. Limiting the number of dives made in a day helps too. But that’s difficult when folks here dive to survive.
Hard work is not sad. In fact, work is a gift from God, who made humans to be diligent in their labor. (Colossians 3:23, Proverbs 14:23) But it’s right to sorrow for people who work in unsafe conditions or risk their lives just to survive.
Decompression sickness is usually treatable with sessions in high-pressure, oxygen-rich chambers. But there are only a few along the coast, and divers often must wait several days before treatment.
That day in September, Atiliano, a father of 10, lay paralyzed on a lobster boat. It took a day and a half to reach the docks. Fellow divers drove him to the hospital.
Atiliano still can’t stand up by himself or sit for very long. He expects to return to sea—not because he wants to. He says, “If I recover, . . . I’ll have to go back to diving.”