I happen to live in the backyard of a famous Greek town. It is known for its sponge industry and at the turn of the 20th century, 500 sponge divers immigrated from Greece, and that changed everything for this little town. These 500 immigrants came to continue their sponge diving activities from a string of islands called the Dodecanese islands, particularly Kalymnos. If you ever find yourself on the west coast of Florida, you will find this unique place called Tarpon Springs.
These sponge divers came to Tarpon Springs to continue diving when the diving industry in Greece took a dive due to overharvesting. But, sponging in Tarpon Springs didn’t start with the Greeks.
The American sponge industry began in the mid-1830’s. Prior to that, natural sponges were imported from the Mediterranean islands. The industry began in Key West, Florida when fishermen noticed these sponge-like creatures washed up on their shores. These jelly-like organisms are only found in the Gulf waters. They used to catch them with “hook boats” in the shallow waters of the Gulf. When they saw the sponges on the ocean floor, they used a long pole with a hook at the end and brought them up. Then, they would have to pound them, wash them out, and let them drain for several days. The sponges that were brought up by these men were very different than the sponges we see for sale. The most valuable type was called Sheepswool.
The ancient Greeks dove for sponges for thousands of years. Greek soldiers used them to pad the inside of their helmets or for drinking cups. Today, they have many uses like household cleaning, car washing, cosmetic use, painting, pottery, and much more.
Tarpon Springs was settled by wealthy Northerners who built beautiful homes. Some of the Victorian homes were built on the Spring Bayou. I must say, this is still one of the most picturesque sites in the area. In the late 1800’s, a man named John Cheyney came down to Florida from Philadelphia. His father had business interests in Tarpon Springs and he came to oversee them. Cheyney became aware of the sponging industry in Key West and realized the opportunity for Tarpon Springs. He invested in his own sponge fleet. It wasn’t long before Cheyney’s company, Anclote and Rock Island Sponge Company, was very successful. Tarpon Springs was now the center of the sponge industry due to untapped sponges right off its coast. Many people from other parts of Florida were relocating to find work in this industry.
In about 1897, Cheyney brought on a Greek by the name of John Cocoris. He was instrumental in bringing other Greeks to the area to work as spongers. He also realized that in Greece, specifically, Kalymnos, the divers had a different way of gathering sponges. They used a diving suit. This was a rubber suit with a bronze collar and a heavy bronze helmet was attached. The helmet had a valve for the air supply which came through a rubber hose. He informed Cheyney of this much more efficient way of collecting sponges. The first Greek divers with these new suits arrived in 1905. Their productivity at gathering sponges skyrocketed. They recruited more interested divers, and many came from the Dodecanese islands, especially Kalymnos. It wasn’t long before the sponge industry in Tarpons Springs was raking in millions of dollars.
This was not without its share of troubles. The old way and the new way collided. The original sponge hookers felt threatened by the new sponge divers. They didn’t appreciate the Greek newcomers who were taking over. Because of the great dispute between them, they eventually went to court and the courts ruled that the divers were forbidden to dive in less than fifty-foot deep water and needed to be more than 12 miles out into the Gulf.
At first, it was difficult for these new Greeks to acclimate to their new culture and home. The wealthy “snowbirds” of that day were not accustomed to these foreigners who made their quiet little town a noisy port. Adversity brings people together, so they stuck close and formed a tight community. They eventually prospered in many related industries and built other businesses on the waterfront of Tarpon Springs, which is fittingly called the Sponge Docks.
Today, sponge divers are still diving for sponges. It’s nickname is Greektown. As you tour the streets, you will see the older men sitting and sipping a Greek coffee at a “kafenio”(cafe) and playing a game of “tavli” (backgammon). Tarpon Springs is a busy tourist place with many eateries, cafes, various shops, and of course sponges for sale. Sponge diving expeditions set sail daily with many tourists onboard. In the winter, the infamous Epiphany celebration at the Spring Bayou is celebrated. There is a procession of clergy and Greek church-goers that pave a path from the church, St. Nicholas, to the Spring Bayou. Awaiting them is a massive crowd of people ready to observe the ceremony of the cross which is tossed into the Bayou. Boys in row boats are anxiously anticipating the moment when they can dive into the cool water and possibly be the one to retrieve the cross. For these boys it is a great honor, not only to be the one who finds the cross, but to participate in this event. If you are in the area in January, this is a must see. In the summer months, we enjoy ” Night in the Islands.” This occurs one weekend a month. It is a public celebration of being Greek with waterfront eating and dancing under the stars well into the night. It undeniably brings back the visions, tastes, and smells of the “Old Country.” Tarpon Springs is located in Pinellas County, Florida which is known for its white powder beaches. If you are ever visiting the area, this is a great place to feel the warm hospitality of the Greeks.