Taking A Dive
by Terry Conway
They searched the sea for treasure. But the treasure wasn’t gold or jewels.
When divers from the Aegean Sea turned up in Tarpon Springs, Florida in the 1890s they came to harvest the rich sponge beds in the Gulf of Mexico. A bottom-dwelling creature, the sponge attaches itself to something solid in a place where it can, hopefully, receive enough food to grow.
The existing gathering method was men hooking the sponges with long poles while seated in a boat. John Cocoris had a better idea. A Greek sponge buyer working in Tarpon Springs, he believed that more, and better, sponges could be gathered using diving methods common to his native land. On June 18, 1905 a diver was lowered overboard and walked for the first time on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, trailing oxygen bubbles and carrying a short rake to hook sponges. To the spongers in small hooker boats bobbing on the water’s surface, mechanized diving must have seemed like an alien invasion.
Each diver wore a 177-pound diving suit topped by a bell-shaped copper helmet and air hose that allowed them to dive in 36-foot deep water for a couple of hours. After the first dive a man reported, “There are enough sponges down there to supply the whole world.”
The arrival of the Greek sponge divers changed the town forever. Located thirty miles northwest of St. Petersburg, Tarpon Springs soon eclipsed Key West as the “Sponge Capital of the World.”
Greek immigrants made the city home, built sponge docks and boats, and the sponge trade was off and running. Within a few years, there were 100 sponge boats and 1,500 Greeks working in waters out of Tarpon Springs. Using diving and hooking, the Greeks harvested four times the quantity and often better quality sponges— revolutionizing the sponge industry. Tarpon Springs became its mecca.
After a dive and a catch the men headed back to port. Sponges were cleaned and measured and price haggling erupted at the Sponge Exchange. The divers were paid according to the number of sponges they were able to harvest. As news of the industry grew, people began turning up at the local docks to see the bounty of sponges, the beginning of the area’s tourist industry.
The part of the sponge we use is essentially a skeleton, which is covered by a tough skin in the sea. The shops in this seaside town offer a bounty of varieties, from giant sea wool sponges (great for car washing) to skinny finger sponges to finer and softer sea silk (good for the face).
However, the sponge industry was nearly wiped out in the 1940s when a red tide destroyed the beds off Florida’s coast, followed by the introduction of synthetic sponges. By the time the sponge beds recovered in the 1980s, the workers had entered more secure occupations. Gradually the sponge industry resumed, and it exists today, but on a smaller scale.
Named for the tarpon fish plentiful along the Florida’s Gulf coast, Tarpon Springs was developed in the 1880s as a winter resort for wealthy Northerners who built stately Victorian mansions there. Today, Tarpon Springs (pop. 20,000) is mostly known for its $20 million tourism industry and much of what attracts those tourists to the area are sponge diving and the local Greek color.
Here the smell of gyros and baklava fills the air. The local color scheme– pale blue on brilliant white– comes straight from the flag of the old country. Visitors will find plenty of sponge related activities here– diving exhibitions, the local museum and a deep-sea fishing boat where you can see sponge divers at work. Many of the older Greek divers are still available to talk to tourists in the community’s shops that blanket the old waterfront area A number of sight-seeing, charter fishing, and deep-sea fishing boats operate from the docks along the Anclote River.
Just a few blocks from the docks, the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral stages the Epiphany Day Celebration every January 6th. A religious celebration of the Baptism of Jesus, boys age 16-18 dive into the frigid waters of Spring Bayou to retrieve a white cross tossed into the water by the Archbishop. Thousands are usually on hand to witness the event and the young man who successfully retrieves the cross receives a special blessing.
The Tarpon Springs Aquarium spotlights a spectacular living reef. Live coral, sponges, sharks and fish come together to form this truly unique undersea oasis. The spectacular 120,000 gallon tank is home to more than 30 species of fish including nurse sharks, bonnet head sharks, snook, tarpon and protected Jewfish. Four times daily during a 30-minute show a trained diver enters this tank and hand feeds its inhabitants.
The aquarium is also home to alligators, eels, lobsters, octopus, anemones and stingrays and features an entire room devoted to a “Touch Tank,” that invites visitors to pet sting rays and baby sharks. The aquarium is a good representation of underwater life in the region and most of the fish were collected within 30 miles of Tarpon Springs.
When you come to Tarpon Springs, come hungry. Greek restaurants abound. You can satisfy yourself with savory dishes at the family owned and operated Mykonos restaurant that offers a vast array of enticing Greek foods. Treat yourself to such authentic delicacies such as soutzoukakia (ground beef and herbs, charbroiled on a skewer), taramosalata (fresh caviar spread), and patatokeftedes (pan-fried potato patties). And don’t forget the delicious Greek village bread and pastries from the Mykonos bakery.
Over at the Opa Café just off Main Street, plates of spanakopita (spinach pie in filo dough) and mousaka are served. At Pappas’ Riverside Restaurant, patrons rave about the pastitsio (ground beef, pasta, onions and Kefalotyri cheese) and the waterfront view.
You can savor the fresh ocean air as you bike, jog, skate or hike along the Pinellas Trail that weaves its way through the town extending 38 miles to St. Petersburg. The Fred Howard Park, west of Florida Avenue, is a mile-long causeway that connects the mainland part of the 150-acre park with the beach area. It offers picnic shelters, playgrounds, trails, canoeing and kayaking, fishing and a white sand beach. The park is saluted as one of the nicest in the state.
With its Mediterranean mystique, Tarpon Springs is a destination with an alluring blend of the past and the present.
For more information visit, www.visitflorida.com/Tarpon_Springs