In an Indonesian village, compressor diving for fish is a dangerous business

September 30, 2018 - Comment

At least 11 men from Indonesia’s Seriwe village, on the island of Lombok, have died in compressor diving accidents. Others have suffered varying degrees of paralysis. The accidents are made more likely because the divers use cheap, makeshift rigs that tend not to include pressure gauges. When their husbands suffer an injury and are unable


  • At least 11 men from Indonesia’s Seriwe village, on the island of Lombok, have died in compressor diving accidents. Others have suffered varying degrees of paralysis.
  • The accidents are made more likely because the divers use cheap, makeshift rigs that tend not to include pressure gauges.
  • When their husbands suffer an injury and are unable to work, responsibility for providing for the family falls on the divers’ wives.

SERIWE, Indonesia – Sunardi remembers the sky lit up red with sunset as he checked the bag his wife had prepared: Change of clothes, check. Cigarettes, dinner, check. He examined his other bag to make sure his diving equipment — flashlight, goggles, breathing tube — hadn’t been left behind. Check.

He and four other men — another diver, a captain and two air-compressor operators — were ready to set sail that day in 2016 from his home village of Seriwe, on the island of Lombok, near the better-known island of Bali. They were headed for the waters off Gerupuk, another village 20 kilometers (12 miles) down the coast.

The crew arrived after dark, which was good: Fish are easier to catch at night, and lobsters are more active too. Sunardi, 36, stood to earn up to 1 million rupiah ($67) on this outing — more than half the minimum monthly wage for this part of Indonesia. It depended on how many dives he was willing to do.

In Gerupuk, the crew switched on the air compressor and attached a hose that ran 60 meters (200 feet) to a dive regulator. Sunardi was ready. With the moon high in the sky, he picked up his speargun, put the regulator in his mouth and slipped quietly into the sea.

Sunardi started diving in elementary school. By the time he was an adult he had become known as a skilled compressor diver. It was a reputation that had won him work across the Indonesian archipelago, but which consistently tested the limits of his body.

After that first dive in Gerupuk on that night in 2016, Sunardi felt a tingling in his left foot. It wasn’t an altogether unusual feeling. The locals had a name for it: aiq keram, or “the cramps.” But the condition isn’t as innocuous as it sounds. Aiq keram can presage the onset of decompression sickness, a much more serious condition that can be fatal.

Sunardi was determined to keep going. He was trying to earn enough money to build a house.

Midway through his third dive, at around 2 a.m., Sunardi began to feel claustrophobic and decided to ascend. He knew to be careful: coming up too quickly could cause decompression sickness.

After climbing aboard the boat, he knew something wasn’t right. This time, it was both legs. He lay down and prayed. The crew took him to a hospital two hours away in the city of Mataram. There, Sunardi was placed in a hyperbaric chamber with three times the normal air pressure to help him recover. But his condition only seemed to worsen.

The numbness had spread up both legs to his waist. His legs were spasming. At one point he looked down and realized with horror that he had soiled his pants.

In the two years since, Sunardi’s been to the hyperbaric tube eight times, with little to show for it save a mounting pile of medical bills. He still can’t move his legs. To pay for the treatment, he’s had to sell his boat and valuable pieces of furniture.

“If I step on a nail, it doesn’t even hurt,” Sunardi said, striking his calf. “It’s like I don’t have legs.”

The island of Lombok is home to 3 million people, mostly Muslims. Image by Gunakarta/Wikimedia Commons.

In Seriwe, Sunardi isn’t alone. The village is known for the high number of men who have been paralyzed, or worse, from diving.

Locals recite the names of some of the men who died from complications related to unsafe diving: Jumasih, Amaq Gonda, Sahram, Bandi, Dadi, Munawir, Kero, Burhanudin, Rusman, Seman, Mastah.

Among those who have suffered permanent injuries: Reji, Zaenal Abidin, Majmu, Halil, Nurman, Saidi, Joni, Combo. It’s a problem linked to the improvised dive equipment, lack of safety training, and the drive to push limits in order to earn more money.

In recreational scuba diving, people are taught to diligently monitor air pressure and immersion time with the help of gauges and dive watches. Doing so ensures the body can adjust safely to changes in water pressure, so as to prevent decompression sickness, also known as the bends.

The divers of Seriwe cannot afford such equipment. They use cheap, makeshift rigs that tend not to include pressure gauges. Combined with the incentive to spend extended time in deep water chasing big fish, these men put their lives, and the livelihoods of their families, on the line.

A fisherman in Gerupuk and his makeshift diving equipment. Image by Fathul Rakhman for Mongabay.

When a diver from Seriwe dies or becomes disabled, more often than not it falls to his wife to make up for the lost income. Sainah, Sunardi’s wife, found work harvesting and drying seaweed. The village is renowned for its seaweed production, but the job is seasonal, and when there’s no work to be had, Sainah turns to family for loans.

“I just make do with menciro,” Sunardi says — handouts for helping other fishermen tie up their boats after returning from sea.

Women sort through seaweed in Seriwe. Image by Fathul Rakhman for Mongabay.

Herawati, a graduate of Australian National University who has researched the economy of Seriwe, said such financial challenges are exacerbated by gender norms that limit the ability of households to adapt.

In many cases, the disabled men in Seriwe could easily take jobs as seaweed farmers, Herawati found. But the widespread belief that seaweed farming is “women’s work” prevents them from doing so.

Gender norms can also prevent female heads of households from accessing loans. Creditors “just assume they won’t be able to pay the loan back,” Herawati said. This includes the Indonesian Ministry of Fisheries, which commits considerable resources to poverty alleviation, but targets the programs at male heads of households as the recipients, Herawati said; women are rarely able to gain access to these services on their own.

“These families should actually be getting special targeting given the disruptions to their lives,” Herawati said.

In Seriwe, it’s a common story. Despite the risks compressor diving poses to men and their families, the industry continues to hold sway; the rewards of good money continue to outstrip the risks of death, injury and poverty.

Sunardi’s family used to be relatively well off. When he could dive, the family could afford nice things. They were planning to send their children to college.

Though it remains unclear if the feeling in his legs will ever return, Sunardi is sure of one thing.

“I can’t go to sea again,” he says.

Sunardi walking on crutches. He lost the use of his legs in a diving accident. Image by Fathul Rakhman for Mongabay.

Correction (Sept. 29, 2018): An earlier version of this article referred to the activities undertaken by Sunardi and his neighbors as scuba spearfishing. By definition, scuba refers to an underwater breathing apparatus that is completely independent of any surface supply. The fishermen’s craft is more accurately described as compressor diving.

The story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on Sept. 20, 2018.

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