Along Dodecanese Boulevard, you’ll wend your way through dried, sorted sponges piled on the sidewalk. At the Sponge Docks, fishermen in rubber boots tromp on mesh bags of wet sponges, squeezing out any organic residue. Lines of drying sponges hang from boats’ rigging. Shops are nearly bursting with yellow, finger, flower pot and wool sponges. Their tough, resilient skeletons compress easily, absorb up to 25 times their weight in water and can be quickly wrung dry.
In the Sponge Capital of America, this colorful spectacle began in the 1800s. Fishermen wading or working from small boats harvested the four useable sponge varieties growing in the Gulf of Mexico and sold them to wholesalers. New York merchants with warehouses in Tarpon Springs began hiring Greek divers in 1889, and by 1905 mechanized sponge boats carried men in full diving suits and metal diving helmets — with compressed air lines — to harvest the Gulf’s virgin deep-water sponge beds. Hundreds of sponge boats crowded the docks.
Tarpon Springs’ sponge industry has survived the Great Depression, a 1947 red tide and the invention of synthetic sponges, though it’s much smaller today. Sixteen boats tie up at the Sponge Docks, and others dock elsewhere on the river.
For divers, it remains a difficult life. “I go out for two to three weeks at a time,” says Capt. Taso Karistinos, a sponge diver since 1971, who runs a 46-foot fiberglass boat with a 20,000-pound-capacity hold. The easy part is harvesting. Divers no longer pull up the sponge; they cut it off, allowing regrowth. Since only the skeleton is useable, the skin and soft parts must be removed through soaking, rinsing and (at first) very pungent drying. The cleaned sponges are trimmed and sorted by size and variety.
The common yellow sponge, which grows in waters 10 to 15 feet deep, is used for all-purpose cleaning. The finger sponge’s long, wavy appendages make it popular for aquariums and flower arrangements. The flower pot sponge, which can reach 3 feet in diameter, is often used as a planter or decorative piece. The wool sponge, known as the “Cadillac of sponges,” grows in 20- to 100-foot depths. It commands the highest price because it’s soft when wet, making it desirable for bathing and delicate cleaning.
Spongeorama’s Sponge Factory and free video (at the Sponge Docks, www.spongeorama.com) and the Tarpon Springs Heritage Museum illustrate the industry in detail, but stroll the docks to truly experience the sights, sounds and smells of the sponge fishermen at work.
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This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.