Retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Justin Lansford was struggling to stay 20 feet deep as he tried to help his teenaged dive buddy Diana plant staghorn coral fragments on the ocean floor. It was only Lansford’s …
Sponging Up History in Tarpon Springs
Doug Ward donned a canvas-and-rubber suit, wood-and-leather boots, and a copper-and-brass dive helmet with a hose attached to an air compressor and plunged into the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs, FL. We could see his bubbles from the St. Nicholas tour boat, and after a few minutes he bobbed to the surface holding a small, unsightly brownish object.
A crewman carefully helped Ward, wearing nearly 175 pounds of dive gear, back onto the boat where he passed the squishy find among the passengers.
“Bleah,” I thought as I examined it.
It was a small wool sponge– considered the most commercially desirable among the more than 1,500 species of the invertebrates that grow on hard-bottom areas in the Gulf of Mexico. But this one was just for demo purposes, not for sale. And anyway, it would have taken about 2 1/2 days to wash away the guts and stink and render it into a pristine bath or decorative accessory like the ones that fill the shops along Tarpon Springs’ main drag, Dodecanese Blvd.
We passengers on the tour boat had just witnessed an historical reenactment of the early 20th-century Greek art of sponge diving with which the St. Nicholas crew has been entertaining visitors since 1924.
Beginning around 1902, thousands of Greek sponge divers poured into this quiet Gulf coast town, bringing with them the equipment they had been using in their native waters since the 1860s. Besides harvesting, processing and shipping the skeletons of the animals, they built boats and homes and prepared their signature dishes like spanakopita and baklava in waterfront restaurants. For decades, Tarpon Springs reigned as the sponge capital of the world.
But in the late 1930s through mid-40s, a bacterial blight killed the industry, and it didn’t really recover until new sponge beds were discovered well offshore during the 1980s. Today, Tarpon Springs has regained its top spot, supplying some 70 percent of worldwide demand for natural sponges.
Of course today’s sponge divers don’t need to use the cumbersome gear of yesteryear. Ward, a transplant from Wyoming who volunteers with St. Nicholas, dives commercially for sponges from his own boat using modern scuba gear such as a hookah rig to deliver air and a neoprene wetsuit. He said he usually harvests between 150 and 200 sponges per day.
The one thing that hasn’t changed in over a century is the processing; it still takes about 2 1/2 days of labor-intensive fussing to render a soft, odorless, germ- and mold-resistant sponge.
The first thing I did when I got off the boat was to go buy one.
The St. Nicholas Boat Line runs daily tours from its dock on Dodecanese Blvd. in Tarpon Springs. Call 727-942-6425 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.