With No Training, Thailand’s ‘Sea Gypsies’ Successfully Treat DCI

Posted on 07/26/09 No Comments

A Urak Lawoi fisherman, near Ban Saladan. (Photo: Jennifer Phelps Quinn via Flickr)

A Urak Lawoi fisherman, near Ban Saladan. (Photo: Jennifer Phelps Quinn via Flickr)

With no technical training, indigenous fishermen of Thailand Andaman Sea have successfully treated nearly two-thirds of those who suffer decompression illness through in-water recompression.

The Urak Lowoi, better known as Thailand’s “sea gypsies,” make their living fishing using surface supplied air on the islands of Phuket, Phi Phi, Lanta, Lipe, Jum and Adang. While the opening of the Tarutao National Park and the encroachment of the market economy has rapidly changed their lives, the traditions of women running their society while men journey far from home to fish lives on.

Technology has made it a dangerous profession. For much of the ethnic group’s 500-year history, free diving was the norm. But the advent of compressors gave fishermen a chance to use surface-supplied air to make longer dives, sometimes with disastrous results. A 1998 survey by the International Labour Office in Geneva found a high incidence of DCI in the 30 years surface-supplied air has been used.

Yet, remarkably, the tribesmen figured out, with no technical training, how to treat the bends through in-water recompression, with impressive results: 64 percent of those treated with in-water recompression improved or resolved the DCI problems at depth with no reoccurrence of symptoms at the surface and only 18 percent of the cases could not be treated at all.

According to an excerpt of the full ILO report:

Divers were recompressed in water using surface-supplied compressed air. The time between surfacing from the accident-related dive and being put back in the water ranged from immediately to 60 minutes. Depth and duration of in-water recompression ranged from 4 to 30 meters and 5 to 120 minutes…

Health-care workers in the villages may be able to provide basic first aid but, for some villages, a medical doctor may be as much as 10 hours away and a recompression facility as far as 16 hours in good weather. In-water recompression has, within the diving population, proved to be an appropriate first-aid measure for decompression illness.

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