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The Sponge Diver

The Sponge Diver
The Sponge Diver - Image by Glenn Hayes

The Sponge Diver – A job as old as recorded history comes to Florida’s waterfront

Sponge harvesting is a unique and little-known industry that has been around since the time of Alexander the Great. Originating in the Mediterranean, it eventually found its way over to our part of the world and has evolved into an interesting mix of harvesting methods and locations. Sponge harvesting can be found in the Bahamas, Cuba and Mexico, the Florida Keys and along the Gulf Coast of Florida. In Tarpon Springs, on the and at the mouth of the Anclote River, diving for sponges has become the backbone of the small town and supports not only the demand for sponges but also a thriving tourism industry. Tarpon Springs sponge diving is steeped in tradition and encompasses generations of Greeks diving for, processing and selling sponges.

George Billiris, a long-time sponge merchant and past sponge diver, explained his and his father’s role in the industry. At 85 years old and still selling sponges, he has an interesting story to tell. In 1904 his father, a sponge distributor and buyer from Greece, came to Tarpon Springs to develop the industry. As it turns out, he would not only become a driving force for sponge harvesting but would also help in creating a burgeoning tourism industry that thrives to this day. Following his success distributing sponges, he was asked in 1924 to show tourists how sponges were gathered – from that point on, sponge diving and the sponges themselves became the attracting force to a successful tourist industry, drawing people from around the world to visit this unique coastal town.

Following in his father’s footsteps, George really came into his own helping drive the industry after blight wiped out the sponge crop in the Mediterranean in 1985. The market shifted to our part of the world and George jumped into action. From running his own boat netting $200,000 a year to organizing 94 boats bringing in $15 million, George helped in making Tarpon Springs “the sponge capital of the world” for almost 20 years. Billiris laments that things have changed since another red tide hit the local waters and wiped out the sponges in 2005. The crop has recovered, but Tarpon Springs is now down to 10-12 working boats. The industry here is not currently at its previous high point, but he explains that there is still demand as there are over 1500 commercial uses for sponges, and retail demand is still strong. Other markets such as the Mediterranean, the Bahamas, Cuba and the Florida Keys have seen an increased growth in their sales in recent years.

Harvesting is done in many different ways. Anastasios Karistinos, or ‘Taso’ to his friends, is a Tarpon Springs diver who has been diving the Gulf waters since 1972. His is one of the last remaining sponge diving operations that still works from a traditional Greek sponge boat. He explained to me the process he goes through to get his crop of sponges.

The crew of two to four men head out to sea on his 46’ traditional Greek sponge boat. His vessel is built as the ideal sponging platform for the waters off Tarpon Springs. With a 16-foot beam and a large raised self-draining deck the single engine craft plies the shallow gulf waters looking for sponges. One diver at a time dives the ocean bed, walking on the bottom with an air line fed from the boat. A single orange buoy marks his position on the bottom. With a special weight harness weighing in at 60 pounds, the diver will spend two hours at a time walking the bottom and cutting sponges from their anchoring using a serrated knife. This form of harvesting allows for re-growth of the sponge and increases sustainability. After the two hours on the bottom the diver returns to the surface and rests for two hours. Then it’s back in the water for two more hours. This work continues from dawn to dusk. Trips average 10 days to a month, a length necessary to make the trip profitable and account for an average of at least 180 days at sea a year. These trips have become longer, as expenses such as fuel and supplies increase.

When the sponges are cut from the bottom they are placed in special nets the diver carries with him. When the nets are full, the support crew pulls the net to the surface and drops the empty net back to the bottom. The sponges are then sorted by type and rinsed off with a salt-water wash down. They are then left on deck and covered with blankets. They sit out on deck for three days to allow the surface membrane to separate and are then dried out and stored. All in all, a sponge is handled 44 times from the time it is cut from the bottom to when it is ready for final sale after processing back on land.

Once the boat is filled to capacity with sponges, the crew returns back to the docks and the sponges are sold to buyers on the dock in an auction-style sale. There seem to be more independent sales now as opposed to a cooperative type of market from previous years. There are no salaries in sponge diving and divers get paid by shares. Good trips result in better pay. Bad trips result in very little pay, if any. Just like other jobs that rely on the sea and nature, there are no guarantees. If blight wipes out the sponges for any length of time there simply is no income. Taso, with all his experience, always has this in the back of his mind and has adapted his boat to be able to switch to commercial fishing if the need came about.

There are other methods of harvesting that are used elsewhere, such as small dories manned by two men searching the bottom with glass scopes or in clear water with the naked eye. Then the sponges are pulled from the bottom, using grapnels on poles. This type of harvesting is found in the Keys and the Bahamas but is limited in depth. While divers can operate in deeper depths (usually to about 40 feet) the pole method is limited to about 12 feet.

Sponge diving has proven to be a very effective way to harvest sponges and is not only practiced in Gulf waters. However, sponge diving serves a double purpose in Tarpon Springs. It not only provides world-class natural sponges for the commercial and retail market, but it also is the sustaining backbone to a tourism industry that is drawn to this unique form of aquaculture. The sponge boats draw a crowd as they offload their catch and the gift shops and restaurants surrounding the docks depend as much on the divers as do the sponge merchants and brokers. If the sponges and sponge divers were to disappear the tourists might soon follow.  Here’s to hoping that this unique trade with a long history doesn’t fade away with time.

Glenn Hayes is a freelance photographer and writer based out of the Tampa Bay area of Florida. A second-generation photographer and journalist, he specializes in marine and travel photography and writing. He can be reached at HayesStudios.com and you can follow his blog at GlennHayes.Wordpress.com

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