Divers pay the ultimate price to provide catch of the day

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The Independent Online

In the small Honduran village of Cocobila, a few metres from the Caribbean, there is a small cemetery filled with the graves of young men. Amid the makeshift crucifixes, Carlos Evans has just been buried. He died four days ago, aged 32, leaving a wife and two small daughters.

Like most of the men on this part of the Mosquito Coast, he made his living diving for lobsters destined for America and Europe. And like many of those buried around him, Carlos was killed suddenly – and horribly – by the bends. It is impossible to say what proportion of men from the Mosquito Coast are killed or left paralysed diving for lobster for the international market. At least 4,200 Miskito men are thought to be living with permanent disabilities due to diving accidents – half the estimated number of lobster divers.

Since 2003, the Association of Disabled Miskito Divers has registered 352 deaths from the bends, but this is a conservative figure: many will have been killed at sea never to be accounted for, and hundreds more will have died at home, slowly, from diving injuries.

Alexis Valderramos, 29, has come to pay his respects to Carlos. He has been diving for lobster since he was 15 and on his next voyage I will be joining him, filming for Channel 4's Unreported World. "I'm afraid I may also go down the same path," he says, looking down at Carlos' grave. He says has no choice but to risk it – he has a family of seven to support. For the Miskitos, lobster is a necessity, not a luxury. It is a plight largely ignored by wholesalers and consumers.

The lobster ship that Alexis will share with 100 other men for the next 12 days is supposed to be one of the most modern in the Caribbean, but if animals were transported in these conditions there would be outcry.

Miskito men have always dived for lobster. A few decades ago, they could wade out and scoop them up only metres from the shore. Now they descend to the deeps 12 to 15 times a day. When lobster divers first started suffering horrific injuries, many believed it was the curse of a vengeful mermaid, angry that they'd taken so much from the sea. Now they know they know the truth. Decompression sickness – the bends – happens when a diver ascends too quickly, causing nitrogen bubbles to form in the body. A bubble that reaches the lungs or brain can be fatal.

Alexis is diving with no gauges. The only way he will be able to tell if his air is running low will be when it becomes hard to breathe. His tank is tied to his back with frayed rope.

"It always lets me down. When it breaks you have to go up quickly and the pain hits you," he says.

Boycotting Caribbean lobster isn't the answer – the Miskitos rely on it – but if we ask basic questions about where our lobster comes from, those who catch it would be more likely to have proper equipment, training and medical support.