Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Divers go to extremes in search of lobster sold to Americans

By Catherine Olian, Jessica Hopper, Michelle Balani and Alissa Figueroa
Rock Center
UPDATED: Off the coast of Honduras, divers are dying in search of what they call "red gold." The treasure they're hunting is the lobster that ends up on many American dinner plates.
"Americans should know that every time they eat the lobster, there is a history behind that lobster," said Dr. Elmer Mejia, who has devoted his life to helping the lobster divers.
Mejia has been treating lobster divers for nearly three years at his clinic in La Ceiba, Honduras. The doctor has the only hyperbaric chamber to treat the men who come to him when they are suffering from decompression sickness, commonly called "the bends."
Thousands of men have become permanently disabled working in the unsafe and poorly regulated lobster industry in Honduras. They spend weeks at a time at sea, making as many as 16  dives a day down to depths of 120 feet.  Their air tanks often don’t even have pressure gauges to warn them when their supply is running low, so the divers bolt to the surface when they suddenly have trouble breathing.  The dangerous combination of staying down too long and coming up too quickly can result in serious decompression sickness and in some cases, paralysis.
"It's incredibly dangerous what they are doing.  They are diving so far beyond anything that we would consider to be within acceptable limits," said Eric Douglas, who writes about diving safety and has studied the Miskito divers along with Dr. Mejia. "They have none of the basic things that divers today would consider mandatory equipment- pressure gauges, alternate air sources, even a buoyancy control vest to help them float underwater without effort."

Sometimes the men ignore their difficulty breathing in an attempt to catch one more lobster.
"They get paid by the pound, so the more lobsters they can get on every one of those dives, the more money they make.  So they're going to push it for every last breath in the tank," said Douglas.
About 90 percent of their catch ends up in the United States, according to the Honduran government.
Dr Mejia works around the clock at his small clinic treating as many divers as he can. He has very little money, but he doesn’t turn any injured diver away, and what he sees is heartbreaking.
"It's very difficult when you see very young people paralyzed from the neck down below and you know that they will not improve," said Dr. Mejia.
Mejia often travels to the Miskito Coast, a remote area about 200 miles from his clinic where most of his patients live. People there have no electricity or running water. There are few other job opportunities and most families have at least one male relative who became disabled diving for lobsters to be exported to the United States.
In a dilapidated one-room house, Wilmur Mauricio Sambola lay dying. He was paralyzed from the chest down while diving for lobster and he was suffering from a severe infection caused by his illness. Mejia had treated Sambola 10 months earlier and knew that his injuries were severe, but he was still shocked to see how rapidly he had deteriorated.
"He was a very strong man, I'm really surprised at his condition at this moment," said Mejia as he leaned over the ailing man.
During his visit, there was little Mejia could do to treat the 31-year-old man except to provide him with pain medication.
Some 4,500 divers throughout the Miskito Coast have suffered from dive-related injuries like Sambola. Those lucky enough to be healed often return to diving.
"We feel very pleased when they improve very quickly at the chamber, but sometimes we are kind of scared because if they improve so quick, so fast, they will think the hyperbaric chamber makes miracles," said Mejia. "So they will go back again diving and the next time can be the last time."
They take the risk for a few hundred dollars for each two week diving trip.  Only the tails of the lobsters they catch are sent to America, and there’s no way the U.S. government, or the consumer, can tell if a lobster tail was caught by a lobster diver.
"Whether they are dive caught or trap caught lobsters, you can't tell, all that we're looking at is the tail," said Agent Paul Raymond of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  There are no laws in the U.S. blocking the import of lobster caught by deep sea divers like the Miskito men.
The Honduran government and regional fishing organizations want to ban lobster diving in 2013, but the divers say they can’t stop because they have no other way to feed their families.
"If we do not provide the job alternatives, stopping the diving will be like killing them," says Dr. Mejia.
There is some hope. USAID just announced that the World Bank is putting together a package of grants and loans for the lobster divers totaling about $775,000. The money is meant to help the Miskito divers develop other ways to make a living, including possibly starting a small artisanal diving industry to catch fish that live in shallow waters, where it’s safe to dive.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Learning how to develop an anxiety-free scuba diving descent

I don’t know about you, but I always seem to stress over the little things.
Call me anal (that’s all right, I’d heard it before), but it seems like I can hit the home run, but sometimes I have trouble getting to the plate, metaphorically speaking.
I can snowboard all day and never fall – and then I’ll take a spill off the chairlift.
I play hockey, and I can score from anywhere. But I can’t, for the life of me, score on a breakaway.
Get me to the golf course, and I can put up a decent score. But I NEVER hit it well of the first tee.
I chalk all of it up to thinking too much. Or, perhaps more accurately, having too much time to think.
Up until recently in my scuba diving development, my biggest problem was the descent. Get me past the first 15 feet, and I’m a fish – good buoyancy control, good trim, good air usage, etc.
The problem was that I had a heck of a time descending. And when I would be on a dive boat with a handful of other divers, I would become nervous that I couldn’t descend, and that I would slow down the entire group. That was my dirty little secret that I would keep quiet about during the pre-dive chatter. So the problem would perpetuate upon itself.
I remember the dive leader once pulling me by my foot to get beyond that first 15 feet, or deciding to “duck dive” to force myself to descend. That’s a stupid method that can be dangerous.
I tried all sorts of other solutions – not eating too much before diving, eating before diving, trying to calm my nerves, and ultimately, overweighting myself.
For a time, I was convinced it was my equipment. I was venting the air from my BC (buoyancy compensator) correctly, but something in the BC  was malfunctioning and wasn’t venting. That was the cause of my problems, I thought. I remember feeling puzzled and embarassed when an overweight man would be using less weight than me to decend.
“I’m in good shape,” I thought to myself. “How is that fat guy using 10 pounds less weight than me to descend?”
When I would dive in the Great Lakes with a 7-millimeter wetsuit, I would don so much weight; I’d feel like I was pulling a Mack truck back onto the dive boat after a dive.
Not good for the knees or the back, and certainly not good for my scuba diving development.
Finally, I just started forcing myself to relax, and I starting thinking about the anatomy of the descent.
Was I being completely still when I began my descent?
As it turns out, no, I wasn’t. I noticed I still would be finning, or sculling, as I was purging air from the BC. Probably a nervous tick developed early during the problem. Just a little kicking, which creates upward momentum can prevent the descent.
Was I venting my lungs while I was venting the BC?
No. Again, the anxiety was building as the group was preparing to descend or was already descending. A full set of lungs can easily prevent a diver from descending. I was probably taking one last breath above the water level at the same time I was purging the BC. It is a natural instinct to either hold one’s breath when water contacts the face and/or take a deep breath from the regulator. So that part of the decent goes against what actually feels natural.
Soon, I was descending much easier. And with success in the descent, the anxiety level started to fall and my confidence in overcoming the problem began to grow. And success began to perpetuate onto itself.
The end result is that I have been able to drop 10-12 pounds of weight from my cold water dives and about 5-8 pounds from my warm water dives.
It is still a work in progress, and I am still probably a little overweighted. But I am fine with that, since I am overcoming my problem and making it easier to maintain my position during the safety stop at the conclusion of my dive.
Look for the accompanying piece about stress-free descents in this blog, courtesy of Dive Training magazine.

Keys to a stress-free descent in scuba diving

Courtesy of Dive Training magazine
The key to a stress-free descent that sets the stage for a safe, enjoyable dive is to relax – admittedly not always the easiest accomplishment when there are so many anxiety-producing details to think about. To help control the anxiety, begin preparations for entering the water and descending well in advance.
Take your time doing a predive equipment inspection, setting up your scuba unit and gearing up. Complete a thorough buddy check before entering. If diving from a boat, follow the instructions of the crew. Only then can you enter the water with confidence in your buddy team’s equipment and knowledge of correct procedure.
Once on the surface, make sure you are sufficiently positively buoyant to float comfortably but not bob like a cork. Check your gear again to make sure everything is fastened where it should be. If uncertain about the right amount of weight, now is the time to do a weighting test.
While you’re waiting for your buddy to enter or if you feel the anxiety building, rest for a few moments on the surface with your face in the water. This quells the instinct to hold your breath and eases the transition to the underwater enviroment. …
Many divers have trouble getting below the surface because they either fail to vent air from the BC adequately or unconsciously scull with their legs, creating upward momentum. Assuming you are properly weighted, your body is still and you’ve exhaled well, you should slowly sink, staying in synch with your buddy’s descent.
As you slip below the surface, concentrate on breathing continuously with normal inhalations and long, slow exhalations. Just below the surface, gently equalize the ears to loosen the eustachian tubes, then equalize often – every few foot or so for the first few body lengths. Remember to raise your chin to open the eustachian tubes; also stretch your neck to the side if necessary.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Aircraft wreck found off Florida's Atlantic coast

JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — A scuba diver in Florida says he's found the remains of a WWII-era aircraft on the ocean floor.
Randy Jordan of Emerald Charters tells The Palm Beach Post (http://bit.ly/s1iacg ) that he was diving at a depth of around 200 feet four miles off Jupiter last week when he spotted the remains of an aircraft. The plane was upside down but still mostly intact.
Jordan says he believes the plane is a Curtiss Helldiver SB2C.
If he's right, it would be the second Helldiver wreck found underwater in two years. One of the planes was found off Hawaii in January 2010.
Jordan says he has plans to take more divers to the site, but they have to proceed cautiously because the plane still could contain live ammunition or human remains.

Judge cautions lawyers in honeymoon death trial

The Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.  — A Jefferson County judge has instructed state prosecutors and attorneys for a Jefferson County man charged with killing his wife during a honeymoon trip to Australia to get along and act like adults as they prepare for trial Feb. 13.
Circuit Judge Tommy Nail made the comments during a hearing last week in Birmingham. Nail said he had received letters from attorneys on each side complaining about lawyers on the other side.
Nail also upheld an earlier ruling that jurors won't see a video of Gabe Watson removing items from the grave of his wife, Tina at a Birmingham area cemetery.
"I don't see any relevance of that," Nail said.
But the judge said he would wait until the trial starts to rule on whether jurors can see a prosecution video re-enacting the scuba diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef where Tina Watson died. Defense attorneys have objected to jurors seeing the reenactment, saying it only speculates with the prosecution's theory of how Tina Watson died.
Nail said he would hold a hearing once the trial starts on whether jurors should see the reenactment.
Nail told attorneys he has reserved four weeks on his calendar for the trial, which will be held in a large courtroom in the basement of the Jefferson County Judicial Building. The giant courtroom is generally reserved for high profile cases that are expected to generate heavy media coverage.
Watson sat quietly next to defense attorneys during the hearing. He made no comment to reporters.
Defense attorneys complained that prosecutors have not allowed them to talk with a lead investigator in the case. Nail did not order prosecutors to make the investigator available, but said he expects prosecutors to comply with his order that both sides fully disclose all evidence they expect to present during the trial.
"I don't see what the reluctance is. This case has been investigated to death," Nice said.
Deputy Attorney General Don Valeska said prosecutors have shared all evidence with the defense. He said he does not consider the investigator a witness.
The judge said he expects to bring in 70 potential jurors from which attorneys will choose.
Tina and Gabe Watson met while both were students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She died while the couple was diving on a century-old shipwreck on the Great Barrier Reef about 10 days after they were married.
Prosecutors claim Watson caused her death by cutting off her air supply while they were diving. Defense attorneys say the death was an accident.
Watson, who lives in the Birmingham area and is free on bond, is charged with capital murder, but prosecutors agreed they would not seek the death penalty in exchange for Australia extraditing Watson. In Australia, Watson pleaded guilty to a manslaughter charge and served 18 months in prison.
Nail earlier refused a defense motion that he dismiss the charges based on double jeopardy because of the time Watson has already served in prison in Australia.
Prosecutors claim that Watson planned his wife's death while in Alabama so he could collect life insurance money.
Defense attorney Joseph Basgier said the 34-year-old Watson is ready to get the trial started.
"He's anxious. He's nervous. He's ready to get this trial behind him so he can be a free person," Basgier said.