AP PHOTOS: Lobster divers risk injury, death in Honduras

In this Sept. 1, 2018 photo, men ride past on their horses, in Irlaya, Honduras. Among exotic, tropical vegetation along the Caribbean coast, the Mosq

In this Sept. 1, 2018 photo, men ride past on their horses, in Irlaya, Honduras. Among exotic, tropical vegetation along the Caribbean coast, the Mosq

In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, dogs eat scraps left by family and friends attending the funeral of Miskito diver Oscar Salomon Charly, in Cabo Gracias a

In this Sept. 2, 2018 photo, dogs eat scraps left by family and friends attending the funeral of Miskito diver Oscar Salomon Charly, in Cabo Gracias a

In this Feb. 6, 2018 photo, Charles Melendez, 5, and his 4-year-old brother Jefferson, play with their father's wheelchair while he rests, in Puerto L

In this Feb. 6, 2018 photo, Charles Melendez, 5, and his 4-year-old brother Jefferson, play with their father's wheelchair while he rests, in Puerto L

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

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

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, a

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, a

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.

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.

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 div

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 div

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 cuc

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 cuc

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 sh

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 sh

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 S

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 S

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 myt

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 myt

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 a

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 a

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 livin

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 livin

In this Feb. 9, 2018 photo, a man takes a nap inside a makeshift restaurant in Puerto Lempira, Honduras. With more than 60 per cent of its 9 million p

In this Feb. 9, 2018 photo, a man takes a nap inside a makeshift restaurant in Puerto Lempira, Honduras. With more than 60 per cent of its 9 million p

In this Feb. 11, 2018 photo, Elvira Mendoza Espinosa, hits a diving tank with a hammer announcing the start of the morning Mass, outside the Moravian

In this Feb. 11, 2018 photo, Elvira Mendoza Espinosa, hits a diving tank with a hammer announcing the start of the morning Mass, outside the Moravian

In this Jan 31, 2018 photo, 28-year-old lobster diver Charles "Charly" Melendez puts his hands over his face in frustration as he comes to terms with

In this Jan 31, 2018 photo, 28-year-old lobster diver Charles "Charly" Melendez puts his hands over his face in frustration as he comes to terms with

In this Sept. 1, 2018 photo, a man bathes in a mangrove swamp in Irlaya, Honduras. Among exotic, tropical vegetation along the Caribbean coast, the Mo

In this Sept. 1, 2018 photo, a man bathes in a mangrove swamp in Irlaya, Honduras. Among exotic, tropical vegetation along the Caribbean coast, the Mo

In this Feb. 10, 2018 photo, evangelical pastors preach to inmates inside a prison in Puerto Lempira, Honduras. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

In this Feb. 10, 2018 photo, evangelical pastors preach to inmates inside a prison in Puerto Lempira, Honduras. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

In this Feb. 10, 2018 photo, Miskito divers wait to board a boat for a two week fishing trip to harvest sea cucumbers, in Krata, Honduras. Thousands o

In this Feb. 10, 2018 photo, Miskito divers wait to board a boat for a two week fishing trip to harvest sea cucumbers, in Krata, Honduras. Thousands o

In this Feb 1, 2018 photo, Angel Ponce takes a swig of rum, in Puerto Lempira, Honduras. Among exotic, tropical vegetation along the Caribbean coast,

In this Feb 1, 2018 photo, Angel Ponce takes a swig of rum, in Puerto Lempira, Honduras. Among exotic, tropical vegetation along the Caribbean coast,

In this Jan. 30, 2018 photo, Miskito diver Charles "Charly" Melendez, 28, is carried by his 10-year-old son Jason and wife Kenia from their rented roo

In this Jan. 30, 2018 photo, Miskito diver Charles "Charly" Melendez, 28, is carried by his 10-year-old son Jason and wife Kenia from their rented roo

In this Jan 31, 2018 photo, paralyzed by decompression sickness in 2017, lobster diver Charles "Charly" Melendez, 28, stares at the ceiling lying on t

In this Jan 31, 2018 photo, paralyzed by decompression sickness in 2017, lobster diver Charles "Charly" Melendez, 28, stares at the ceiling lying on t

In this Feb. 9, 2018 photo, paralyzed by decompression sickness, lobster diver Misael Banegas Diaz, 49, is lifted by physical therapist Cedrak Waldan

In this Feb. 9, 2018 photo, paralyzed by decompression sickness, lobster diver Misael Banegas Diaz, 49, is lifted by physical therapist Cedrak Waldan

In this Feb. 7, 2018 photo, Miskito divers stricken with decompression sickness climb into a hyperbaric chamber at the hospital in Puerto Lempira, Hon

In this Feb. 7, 2018 photo, Miskito divers stricken with decompression sickness climb into a hyperbaric chamber at the hospital in Puerto Lempira, Hon

In this Sept. 5, 2018 photo, supervised by a Honduran Army soldier, students practice their routine they plan to perform in an independence military p

In this Sept. 5, 2018 photo, supervised by a Honduran Army soldier, students practice their routine they plan to perform in an independence military p

In this Feb. 6, 2018 photo, children hold onto to their crafted toy trucks from plastic juice boxes with lids for wheels, in Puerto Lempira, Honduras.

In this Feb. 6, 2018 photo, children hold onto to their crafted toy trucks from plastic juice boxes with lids for wheels, in Puerto Lempira, Honduras.

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 transpo

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 transpo

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 Misk

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 Misk

In this Jan. 27, 2018 photo, women package frozen lobsters to export to the US, in a factory in La Ceiba, Honduras. The lobster industry, which genera

In this Jan. 27, 2018 photo, women package frozen lobsters to export to the US, in a factory in La Ceiba, Honduras. The lobster industry, which genera

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 winds up 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.

With more than 60 per cent 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 Mass 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 city of 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.

___

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