Paulino, 42, is an ex-diver from Brus Laguna. He has been paralysed from the waist down for 11 years, after being exposed to such a high level of nitrogen that his nerve system shut down. He is one of hundreds and hundreds of young handicapped ex-divers along the coast. According to legend, Honduras’ Caribbean coastline is littered with treasures from a time when Spanish galleons passed by filled with treasure chests of gold. Buried so deep under the sea bed now, very few treasure hunters have had the expertise or the means to attempt to locate this potential wealth, and if indeed there does lie a trove of jewels, it will likely remain hidden for some time to come.
There is another treasure to be found in these waters, however, at least for the Miskito Indians that live in the sparsely populated villages of Honduras’ Mosquito Coast. Caribbean spiny lobster has for decades been the source of income for the population here, yet whilst it’s provided wealth for the region it has also been a curse for the hundreds of lobster divers injured whilst sourcing the delicacy. They call the lobster ‘red gold’ in these parts, yet to find this treasure, divers must descend to depths for times that defy the body’s ability to deal with the dangerously high levels of nitrogen they are subjected to. The result, a region inundated with injured and crippled men, unable to find work in an area rife with unemployment.
Paulino, 42, is an ex-diver from Brus Laguna. He has been paralysed from the waist down for 11 years, after being exposed to such a high level of nitrogen that his nerve system shut down. 10-15 dives a day to depths of up to 100 feet will do this to the body. This is decompression sickness at it’s most perilous. His family left him when he could no longer support them, and he lives in a shack that consists of very little more than it’s broken wooden frame. Planks are missing from the floor of his stilted house exposing the mud below and his wheelchair regularly gets trapped between the gaps. Without medical treatment, which is rarely available for the divers on the Mosquito Coast, he has developed Atrophic Musculos, which can potentially lead to amputation. Left abandoned, he has no one to regularly assist him to wash his clothes or clean himself.
He is one of hundreds and hundreds of young handicapped ex-divers along the coast. If there are few employment opportunities available, there are even fewer for those that have been inflicted with paralysis. Sandy roads, and canoe-like boat transportation make maneuvering through the area difficult and it is often only through church donations and volunteer contributions that these men are able to enjoy any assistance in an area where there is still great stigma associated with being handicapped.
Lobster diving in Honduras functions in the gray area on international fishing laws. The Honduras government and international organizations have been trying for years to phase out diving for lobster and offer employment alternatives to the Miskito divers. At present though, there are few options in this rural region, practically cut off from the rest of the country by poor transport options and lagoon network that covers most of the area.
To make matters worse, spurred on by the current global economic climate, the price of lobster has been at an all time low for almost a year. With the summer hiatus now over, and the season again open, industry representatives are not optimistic. There are concerns that rising pressure to compensate for the low cost of lobster will push the divers to take ever more risks to bring back a decent catch.
Shawn Hyde, managing director of Mariscos Hybur, one of the largest lobster processing plants is not positive for the upcoming year. ‘We’re down 20% from last year which was in itself a terrible year for us. This year the price is so low, at 170 lempira a pound, that we can’t even help the fishermen get out, like we would have done before.’said, ‘In the long run, it is a lot more profitable to be trapping for lobsters but outfitting the boats with traps is a significant investment’
Thousands of men are employed along this coast and hundreds have been crippled or killed whilst diving. Nonetheless, the practice continues, and last season there were 67 boats still preferring to dive for the lobster as opposed to setting traps which is regarded as the safer if not more costly alternative.
US companies who are the chief purchasers of Honduran lobster have stipulated that they no longer buy lobster that has been caught from dive boats, but the reality is that it is impossible to tell where the lobster has originated once it reached the processing plant, and while the current economic situation remains as it is, and until stricter regulations are enforced, Miskito lobster divers will continue to risk it all in search of the country’s caribbean ‘red gold’.
All photographs were taken by Kate Warburton.