Meet Prasetya, A Javanese Compressor Diver and Fisherman Who’s Nearly Lost His Life (Twice)
by Owen James Burke
Prasetya used to dive up to 60 meters deep for lobsters and clams in Banyuwangi, East Java, Indonesia, until he nearly lost his life. He may look forlorn, but he’s more than happy knowing those days and that life are over.
Prasetya, or “Pras,” as he’s known, lives in the small fishing village of Pancer in eastern Java, Indonesia, where he was one of few who spoke some English. Through many charades, he was able to tell me of his past life as a fisherman and a lobster and clam diver — one of the deadliest jobs for a young man in Java.
Cold temperatures, long hours and dangerous depths combined with outdated, unreliable equipment (if any at all) made Pras second-think his occupation, and these days he’s brewing coffee and cooking fish at Café del Sol, his family’s restaurant where he was preparing wood-smoked skipjack tuna while we chatted. He does miss his old life, but he’s relieved, he says, to not venture into the deep anymore.
Air compressors are connected to decaying diesel engines like this one in order to supply divers below with air.
Lobsters are most easily hunted at night, and they range more plentifully in depths below about 30 meters, but diving in eastern Java is largely seasonal because cold waters during the winter (dry season) prevent deep dives from being possible without wetsuits, which are not generally available.
Nearly every night during monsoon season, using old air compressors powered by diesel engines of about the same vintage, divers rely on unfiltered surface air supplied through plastic hoses running several hundred feet down (and out), where the cold, dark pastures aplenty await for those brave enough to try their luck at bringing as many lobsters and clams to the surface as they can before they get decompression sickness, freeze to death, or lose circulation, resulting in paralysis.
Decompression sickness (DCS, or “the bends”) occurs when divers rise too quickly from — or spend too much time in — the depths, and don’t allow their bodies enough time to absorb inert gases that have built up (primarily nitrogen, as it makes up about 79% of the air we breathe in). In order for the body to absorb these gases, a diver needs to surface slowly. The bends begin to develop when nitrogen concentrations transform from a solution to a gas, creating tiny bubbles. If a diver rises too quickly, the bubbles continue to expand, which create pressures that will cause unbearable aches and pains throughout the body. In serious cases, these bubbles will gather to make larger ones, stifling blood flow and ultimately resulting in death, a prospect that is very present in the minds of anyone diving on surface-supplied air from a compressor. Furthermore, even in the tropics, the water temperature at a depth of 30-60 meters is easily cold enough to cease circulation and cause hypothermia (or paralysis) in no time (and much less at night).
The threat of cold temperatures goes beyond hypothermia, however. In the deep, blood stops flowing to extremities and stays within the core of the body in order to preserve oxygen. If blood flow stops for too long (something very difficult to discern under pressure during a dive), a diver will become paralyzed, like many of Pras’ friends.
Still yet, there’s also the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning when a compressor is placed too close to the engine on which it’s running, and on many of the boats operating out of Pancer, it’s the only place the compressor can go.
But despite the perils, quitting lobster and clam diving is not an easy decision for a young man in this village. Others go to work in construction, or at the local gold mine, but that’s government work which makes for long hours and relatively meager earnings (especially considering that for workers, the payout is not dependent upon the size of the haul). For Pras, diving was the only conceivable means by which he could have the opportunity to earn a small fortune and afford himself the opportunity to comfortably support a family and household — or travel and see the world, as he still hopes to do someday.
One night, Pras’ compressor gave out on him while he was over 40 meters beneath the surface in the black of night, leaving him with no air supply from above. Compressors are built to store some air, but not necessarily enough to bring a diver safely back to the surface. Pras had a little air left in the compressor and nothing else but a flashlight and his own two lungs — shrunken to about one-third of their regular size — to bring him back up.
At that moment, his natural reaction was to break for the surface as quickly as possible to catch a breath, but listening to his instinct at such a depth was going to result in decompression sickness and might have ended up killing him.
It can be a very fine line between getting “the bends” and drowning, though, as Pras knows all-too-well. A diver’s mind goes blank when the air, which many young divers take for granted, stops coming through the tube, and there’s only panic and terror. Watching the last of their bubbles float up to the surface, it’s about all their brain can do to tell their body not to chase after them.
Pras was trained well, and this was not the first time his compressor had stopped while diving. Knowing full-well what the consequences of his next series of actions might be, he coaxed his heart to slow down, stop using so much oxygen, and allow him to began a slow and controlled but excruciating stride for the surface, carefully and intermittently releasing what little air was left from his lungs.
Onboard, there’s no recompression chamber or any sort of rudimentary first aid available for treating decompression sickness, so there’s even less margin for error should a diver be forced to make a quick ascent. There’s no hospital within any reasonable distance, and medevac is not available to the average fisherman, diver, or most anyone in Indonesia, for that matter. In fact, a man was caught in a rip current and drowned on the beach the morning after I arrived. Fifteen minutes passed before a car of no apparent designation or authority came barreling down a dirt road, and by then it was far too late. I was informed that it took a couple hours’ drive just to have the man officially pronounced deceased at a hospital.
While Pras was struggling to break the surface, his partner was waiting on deck wondering whether he’d ever seen his friend again. After what must have seemed like a lifetime, he emerged with a gasp and sharp, blinding aches pulsating throughout his joints. He was experiencing the bends. His was pulled up and over the rail, and collapsed in a pain he could describe in neither English nor Indonesian. I could only decipher from his eyes how severe the pain must have been, but many divers relate it to an ‘ice cream headache’ running through their entire body, crossed with a disorientation that could be associated with vertigo.
To think it took experiences like these to convince Pras to occupy himself otherwise may seem astonishing knowing that each kilogram of lobster fetches only about $3.70 USD on a good day, but in Java, many men are all-too-willing to scare up what they can from the deep, and the live seafood trade thrives on them; the divers take all the risks, and as their catch travels farther and farther away, the value only increases. When a lobster finally reaches the holding tank of a restaurant in Hong Kong, for example, it can easily sell for upwards of $70 USD per kilogram.
Pras with a couple of understudies who are soon likely to fill his shoes
Many of Pras’ friends suffer from paralysis, but plenty still spend their nights during the hot and rainy season (roughly November through March) in the dark depths seeking their own fortunes that they hope will bring about better lives for their families, but unlike Pras, most of them have not yet experienced the nightmare of losing their air supply (or blood flow) at over 100 feet beneath the surface.
Pras’ brother still dives, and their father, who trained them both when they were young boys, was once considered to be one of the best fishermen and divers in the village. Despite his own past success within the industry, he now farms bananas.