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Death-defying dives for lobster

Marketplace Staff Oct 11, 2007

Death-defying dives for lobster

Marketplace Staff Oct 11, 2007


KAI RYSSDAL: You can go to a local chain restaurant any day of the week and order a lobster tail for maybe $15. We import almost 120 million pounds of lobster every year. A lot of it caught by hand down in the Caribbean, where right now the lobster season is in full swing.

Our series Working takes us into the lives of individual people in a constantly changing global economy. Today, we go to Honduras, where 3,000 men make their living diving for lobster.

Dozen of them are seriously hurt on the job every year. Some of them die. Claudine LoMonaco has the story of one who’s not quite ready to quit.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: On land, Romulo Greham is a crippled man. His knees tremble when he walks, and he looks like he might crumple with every step. But in water, he says he is perfect — strong and able to work. For the last 30 years, Greham has made his living diving more than 100 feet deep, down to the floor of the Caribbean, stalking lobster.

In places like Maine and Nova Scotia, lobsters are caught in traps. But where Romulo Greham lives, on the Mosquito coast in Honduras, it’s cheaper to use divers than it is to use traps. Cheaper, but a lot more dangerous.

20 years ago, Greham was diving at about 120 feet when things went wrong.

ROMULO GREHAM: The day of my accident, I wanted to catch more lobster than anybody else. I used lot of tanks that day — 16 tanks. In those days, we didn’t have any training.

Any trained diver knows that using 16 oxygen tanks that deep in one day is crazy. The way these guys dive, that’s more than six hours at depth. U.S. diving experts say about an hour split between three to four dives would be safe. But Greham’s story is common here — and you can see the consequences.

Walk through Greham’s village, or any village along the Mosquito Coast, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think there’d been a war here. Beneath the towering mango trees and coconut palms, men move along the dirt paths in wheel chairs or on crutches. Family members pull quadriplegic on planks with wheels. All of them were injured diving.

Greham’s own problems started as a sharp pain in his ribs when he came up from his 16th dive. Within a half hour, he was completely paralyzed.

GREHAM: I could only move my head and my eyes were looking around. But I couldn’t speak and my tongue couldn’t move.

He couldn’t breathe and passed out. He came to at a clinic not far from his village.

GREHAM: There was a doctor there and he said, “Oh, my son, you can’t walk anymore. You are paralyzed.” And I began to think: “I’m so young, and now I’m paralyzed. I have three girls to look over. If I die, who’s going to take care of these three little girls?”

Greham needed a decompression chamber, but the nearest one was in the Cayman Islands, and the boat captain wasn’t going to pay for that. Greham spent months in bed. Several times a day, his wife would exercise his fingers, toes, and legs. After nine months, he got out of bed with crutches. Finally, he threw away the crutches.

GREHAM: I’d fall on the ground all the time, but I wasn’t ashamed. I’d get up and walk again. People would say, “You’re falling in the streets — why don’t you stay at home?” And I would tell them no… Sure, I fall, but it’s not a problem.

Greham tried farming for a couple years, but his kids would often go hungry. His wife begged him not to go back to sea. If you die, she said, then what good will you be?

GREHAM: I said, “My wife, there is no other way I can support you and our family. I have to go out and dive.” And I went out. My wife was crying, but I went, and it was OK.

Greham still dives, but he’s trying to save others from the injuries that he suffered. Today, he’s out on a small boat teaching a handful of Misquito Indians the basics of diver safety.

Greham’s one of about a dozen lobster divers certified this spring as teachers by the Honduran Navy. It’s the first systematic attempt to train the country’s divers. Diving’s the only industry on the Mosquito coast. Aggressive divers can earn up to $6,000 in a six-month season.

Greham has the men review their charts to see how long they can dive, and check their equipment to make sure it works — SCUBA gear here is outdated and often malfunctions. Divers have no depth gauges, and no way of knowing how much air they have left.

During lobster season, these guys will go out for two weeks at a time, on boats crammed with as many as a hundred men. The lobster stocks are so depleted here that every year the divers have to go deeper.

Greham tells his students they need to slow down:

GREHAM: You can’t use more than eight tanks a day, because you’ll get too much nitrogen in your system.

One by one, the men put on their fins and masks and jump into the water to practice. Greham is trying to limit the time these men scramble for lobster on the sea floor. Typically, divers stay on the bottom until they run out of air, then push off and shoot up to the surface. That’s when they get what’s known as the bends.

It’s like when you open a Coke can and bubbles rush to the top. Only with humans, it’s nitrogen bubbles that burst into muscles and the bloodstream, causing joint pain, paralysis or death.

When divers have a nitrogen attack, a decompression chamber can help. Greham takes me to a nearby clinic with three chambers that were installed in the ’90s — trouble is, the chambers don’t work.

Inside, walls are crumbling. Bats squeak in the rafters and everything, including the large, tubular chambers, is covered in guano. We have to step over a dead bat to get to the largest chamber.

Orelia Ponce, who heads the clinic, says there hasn’t been any money or trained doctors to run the chambers for the last four years.

ORELIA PONCE: Every year, when the season starts, many divers come here, poor guys… and they die because there’s no chamber. If we could get them in the chambers, then they would recover.

Before we leave, the doctor tells Greham he shouldn’t be diving — he’s still got too much nitrogen in his system. He’s risking his life every time he goes under. It’s the same with all injured divers.

Of the men on Greham’s training boat, half have been seriously injured from nitrogen sickness. One nearly died from a brain embolism. Another, like Grehem, walks with a permanent limp. But as soon as they finish the training, Greham and his fellow divers will all head to the sea floor as soon as they can.

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