A massive blizzard slammed the US in mid-February 2007. The day after the storm abated, I sat in my apartment, logged onto Kayak, and began considering my options for an upcoming weeklong vacation.
I settled on Nicaragua, but little did I know that what began as a backpacking trip would eventually turn into an award-winning documentary film project covering one of the most dangerous industries on the planet: commercial lobster diving. The five-year project would bring onboard film producer and cinematographer Brad Allgood and cinematographer Isabelle Carbonell.
This is the inside look at life onboard a real-life lobster boat.
I landed in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, without a place to stay and nothing in the way of a plan. Within two days, I found myself drinking beers with other backpackers in the beautiful post-colonial town of Granada, about an hour's drive from the capital.
After several days in town, I felt the itch to move on. I mentioned to a few other travellers my intentions of exploring the east coast, about an hour's flight from Managua, and was quickly chided. The relative isolation of the Miskito coast serves as a main corridor for drug traffickers heading north from South America. It had a certain reputation for being dangerous, yet I decided to board the next flight out.
It was over a lobster dinner on Big Corn Island when I first learned about the savage, deadly commercial lobster industry. I wanted to experience it firsthand, so on to Puerto Cabezas -- the capital of the region and home to the indigenous Miskito Indians -- I went.
There are usually a few flights a day from Managua to Puerto Cabezas. With weather patterns changing by the minute, you're guaranteed a bumpy, stomach-churning hour-and-a-half ride -- if and when your flight leaves.
Here's a look at the coast of Puerto Cabezas, looking south toward the dock where lobster boats load and unload crew, supplies, and the precious 'red gold': the Caribbean spiny lobster.
Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Americas, with two-thirds of the population living on about $A1.30 per day. You don't have to travel far to see poverty firsthand. With the lobster industry pumping millions of dollars into the local economy, nearly every facet of life on the Miskito Coast relies, in some way, on the spiny lobster.
The Spanish Lady is one of more than 20 commercial lobster diving boats in Nicaragua. I spent eight days filming the crew as they worked and lived onboard. It was here I met Milton, a diving assistant who would later become a central character in the film. Here he is with his mother and father just before he set out to sea.
Lobster divers and their assistants wait for their name to be called at the dock in Puerto Cabezas. If your name isn't called, it could be another two weeks until you work again. The scene is both tense and unpredictable.
Armed with their belongings, divers and other crew must wait at the main dock for their name to be called by the boat owners. The waiting could take several days, with unexpected delays stemming from changes in weather, rising fuel costs, and even protests over wages.
Just a couple of decades ago, fisherman saw such an abundance of the lobster stock in the surrounding Caribbean that it took just a few days to fill the boats to the brim with lobster tails.
Due to overfishing, that same trip now takes up to 10 days.
A lobster diver with his handcrafted lobster spear waits nervously for his name to be called at the dock.
Ice and other supplies are loaded onto the boats for the two-week journey out to sea. This boat will house between 40 and 50 men.
At the time of filming, there were between 20 and 25 commercial lobster boats operating out of Puerto Cabezas and Big Corn Island, Nicaragua. These boats are owned by just several individuals.
The Nicaraguan navy controls the comings and goings of all people and vehicles on the dock, but I found it quite easy to simply walk on the dock to get a closer look. Being a foreigner probably helped.
To this day, I have no clear idea why I was able to make it onto The Spanish Lady with my camera gear, especially given how guarded the lobster industry can be against foreigners. With just a day's notice, I committed to spending eight to 10 days living with the crew in the middle of the Caribbean.
The Spanish Lady holds up to 50 workers, including deckhands, a captain, co-captains, divers, divers' assistants, mechanics, and the chef.
Three meals are prepared by the boat's tireless chef each day. Most food is deep fried, and consists mostly of fish caught during the day while the divers hunt for lobster. The commissary run by the captain's assistant sells a range of items like snacks, cigarettes, and toilet paper. Items aren't actually sold, per se, but ticked off on a ledger, and then deducted from their total earnings at the end of the trip.
After meeting Milton on The Spanish Lady, I knew immediately he was someone I wanted to continue filming after we returned to town. I was drawn to his soft personality and connected with the way he spoke about his wife and son. I learned on the last day out at sea that she was actually eight months pregnant with their second child.
Outdated and broken diving gear is the norm aboard diving boats. It is all too common for masks to leak or outright break into pieces. Tanks, recycled from the early '90s, often fill with sediment or oil, which can clog the tanks and hoses, forcing divers to ascend quickly from great depths. This rapid ascension causes decompression illness, or 'the bends.'
Milton, a diver's assistant, braces his canoe as his diver comes up for a new tank of air. Divers typically make between 12 and 16 dives a day, and they dive up to 180 feet each time. As a result, nearly 100% of all lobster divers show symptoms of decompression sickness or 'the bends.' Hundreds have died, and many end up paralysed.
The job of a diving assistant is quite simple, but incredibly important. Paired with a lobster diver, the assistant's job is to track his diver's bubbles as they rise to the surface, and to follow him in their canoe.
When the diver returns to the surface, the assistant collects any lobsters the diver has caught and passes him a fresh tank of compressed air. As a pair, the diver and assistant earn a set amount per pound of lobster collected. The diver earns a percentage of the total catch, which is paid out at the end of the 10 days out at sea.
Milton works hard for his cut of his diver's catch. Finishing up his first catch of the day, Milton loads up his lobsters into the basket, set to be weighed on the boat. Each basket's total is then recorded by the boat's scribe. Every tail caught now is food on his family's dinner table later.
After each catch, lobster tails are removed from the lobster's body, weighed, and then stored below deck, on ice, for the duration of the trip.
After releasing all of the canoes for the second of three diving sessions of the day, a deckhand takes a breather. These moments were the quietest on The Spanish Lady. You could actually hear the waves lapping the sides of the boat.
Each lobster boat has its own chaplain who leads prayers and song first thing in the morning just before breakfast. He also serves as a shoulder for the divers to lean on.
Captain Ditto was an interesting guy. He ran a tight ship, remained quite serious, and seemed to connect with everyone under his command.
The Spanish Lady hits the jackpot and finds a large number of lobsters in one area. All men are ordered back in the water for another dive.
Dinner is just about ready as the last canoe is pulled into the boat. Each day ends as the sun sets.
The noise on the Spanish Lady was both constant and loud. Besides the boat's ever-present motor directly below deck, there were two motors on deck serving as generators for the compressors, filling and racking air tanks all day, from morning until dinner time. The noise, coupled with the ever-present smoke, oil, grease, fish, and salt water, made living in peace incredibly difficult for the uninitiated.
The end of the trip was welcomed with open arms. With their gear packed up, the men soon changed into their only clean clothes. Nobody wants to smell like fish, grime, and diesel fuel before meeting their family back at the dock. The excitement was palpable.
Milton's mother awaits anxiously near the dock for Milton's return. With a sense of foreboding, she comes and waits for hours.
We ended up filming Milton over the course of a couple of years. Like many of the men who work out at sea, alcohol and drug addiction has been a serious problem for Milton, and as a result, for his family. Upon returning home from a two-week stretch out at sea, he found his house empty, as his wife had left with their two kids.
While many divers have been killed from their work, many more are left paralysed. And once a diver becomes paralysed, he's often marginalized from society. They rely heavily on their family for both physical and financial support before they could return to work, if they ever do. Men in wooden wheelchairs can be seen throughout Puerto Cabezas and the surrounding neighbourhoods.
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