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Visiting Tarpon Springs, Florida: The Sponge Capital of the World

Traveling has always been one of my passions. It exposes us to new cultures and experiences and makes the world a more tolerant place.

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Ever wonder where sponges come from? No? Well, to be honest, neither had I. At least not until I discovered Tarpon Springs. Located on the west coast of Florida, about twenty miles north of Tampa, this small Greek community is widely considered to be the Sponge Capital of the World. Tarpon Springs also has the distinction of having the highest percentage of Greek Americans in any United States city.

So, how did this happen? How did a small community on the Gulf of Mexico wind up being famous for something as simple as a sponge? Well, it just so happens that the waters of the Gulf of Mexico off of Tarpon Springs are one of the few areas in the world where the species of natural sponges suitable for commercial use are found.

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History of the Sponge Trade in Tarpon Springs

It all began back in 1890 when John Cheyney launched the first sponge-fishing boat from Tarpon Springs.

Initially, they retrieved the sponges using a hooking method to bring them up until John Cocoris, a recent immigrant from Leonidion, Greece, introduced the technique of diving for sponges in 1905.

The technique quickly caught on and within a few years, many Greeks immigrated to the United States and Tarpon Springs to work in the newly thriving sponge industry.

In 1908, the Tarpon Springs Sponge Exchange was incorporated as a shareholding organization to provide for the storage and sale of the sponges.

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The sponge industry continued to grow in Tarpon Springs and eventually, the community took on a very distinctive Greek look and culture. The peak of prosperity for the sponge industry in Tarpon Springs was reached in the 1920s and 1930s but a disease substantially reduced the sponge beds in 1939. It took a number of years for the sponge beds to recover and the community survived the economic decline.

In 1946, disaster again hit the community when a red tide algae bloom wiped out the sponge beds. Needing to survive, most of the fishermen switched to fishing for shrimp to make a living.

For the next few decades, most of the sponges being sold in Tarpon Springs were imported as the city transitioned out of the sponge business. The development of the synthetic sponge also helped to dampen Florida’s natural sponge trade.

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With no natural sponge beds to harvest in Tarpon Springs, the Mediterranean region regained the title of “Sponge Capital of the World” by the 1970s, as a surge in demand for the natural sponge boosted the industry. But the good fortunes of the Mediterranean were short-lived as a disease all but wiped out the sponge beds in the Aegean Sea in the mid-1980s.

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A Comeback for Tarpon Springs

With an opportunity to re-establish itself as the “Sponge Capital of the World”, George Billiris, a local businessman, attempted to reintroduce sponge harvesting to the area in 1989 and a comeback was underway. Over the next twenty years, Tarpon Springs continued to cement its position as the leader in natural sponge harvesting. In recent year’s record harvests of sponges have been achieved and the community has regained its niche and title as the docks are once again lined with sponge boats.

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Today the sponge industry continues to thrive and the community has become quite the tourist destination. The docks of Tarpon Springs are lined with fishing boats and tourists flock to the area to see the boats arriving with their sponge harvest. Tarpon Springs sponges are sold all over the world and the community proudly boasts itself once again as the "Sponge Capital of the World"

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Tarpon Springs Today

Walk the streets of Tarpon Springs and you will find numerous shops that sell all shapes and sizes of sponge. It’s an interesting community to spend some time in and if you have a liking for Greek food then certainly you have come to the right place. Today, tourism is probably just as important to the community as the sponge business and the two industries co-exist perfectly to make Tarpon Springs a wonderful destination.

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In addition to the numerous shops, art galleries, and restaurants in town there is also the Tarpon Springs Aquarium. Home to over thirty species of fish the aquarium features a few species of sharks, stingrays and alligators. They also have a touch tank where visitors can feed and pet small sharks and stingrays.

Tarpon Springs is also famous for its many festivals and celebrations and there is something going on almost weekly throughout the year. January brings the Blessing of the Fleet and the Epiphany along with the Sponge Docks Arts & Craft Show. Starting in May and running through November there is a once a month, Night in the Islands, which features live Greek music, dancing and outdoor dining on the docks. Throughout the year there are numerous festivals and celebrations and the community goes all out to support and maintain its Greek heritage.

Tarpon Springs Event Calendar

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For an interesting look at the community and a neat way to get around hop on the trolley that takes visitors from the docks to the town’s center with stops in between. When it’s time to eat, check out Hellas Greek Bakery and Restaurant located across the street from the docks for a great gyro and a taste of authentic Greek Baklava.

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While visiting Tarpon Springs we had the good fortune to meet Nina from Nina’s Natural Sea Sponge & Soap Museum. Nina’s father owns a fishing boat and works in the sponge business. It’s a family affair between sponging and operating the museum with the entire family working in the business. Located on a small side street not far from the docks, Nina’s is the epitome of this friendly tight knit community.

If you are visiting the west coast of Florida in the Tampa/Clearwater Beach area and are looking for something a little different and a lot Greek, check out Tarpon Springs.


Questions & Answers

Question: Hotels to stay in near Tarpon Springs?

Answer: Unfortunately, we have a place nearby so we never have a need for a place to stay in the area. I will usually check with TripAdvisor to find a place with good reviews when we travel.

Question: Can I make reservations at a restaurant in Tarpon Springs, Florida?

Answer: There is a pretty good Greek restaurant called Hellas that accepts reservations. Just Google their name to get their website. It’s located right on the main road along the sponge docks.

Question: Can I dive for sponges with a group in Tarpon Springs?

Answer: I’m not sure. I know you can go out with a group to watch divers harvest sponge, but I am not aware of any group diving trips where you can actually dive for sponge. Try contacting the Chamber of Commerce in Tarpon Springs, they might be able to help.

© 2013 Bill De Giulio

Comments

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on February 06, 2015:

Hey Alun. What a small world. My in-laws live in New Port Richey, which is right next to Port Richey and I will be there next week. We always try to spend at least a few hours in Tarpon Springs, such an interesting place. It always amazes me what a truly small world it can be. We first started going down there in the 1990s also when my in-laws retired to New Port Richey. Have a great weekend Alun.

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on February 06, 2015:

Bill, this is something of a trip down memory lane for me - my parents used to have access to a holiday home in Port Richey, and I stayed in the area several times in the 1990s, visiting St Petersburg, Clearwater, and Tampa and many of the natural attractions on the Gulf Coast. And I went to Tarpon Springs a couple of times.

It's a fascinating and unique place to visit, and rather charming too, and I particularly remember the boats, and of course the pelicans and other sea birds which flocked in their hundreds around the docks.

However, I wasn't aware of the history, so thanks for providing information about how Tarpon Springs came to be. Anyone on vacation in the region should go here, and your page will hopefully encourage many to do so.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on July 05, 2013:

Tarpon Springs really is a fascinating place. We've had the opportunity to visit on numerous occasions and we never tire of the place. Nina's was a particularly wonderful find, very nice folks with an interesting family history. Thanks for the visit,have a great weekend.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 05, 2013:

What an interesting place! Thanks for profiling this town and giving us its history. Nina's looks like an especially neat shop to visit while there.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 16, 2013:

Hi Michelle. Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for stopping by. Welcome to HubPages.

Insightful Tiger on March 16, 2013:

Seems like a quaint little city. We might have to make a day trip out of it. I especially want to get on the red streetcar, I know my son would love it. Thanks for all the great information!

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on February 23, 2013:

Hi wildove5. What a small world. My in-laws live in Newport Richey, about 20 minutes from Tarpon Springs. And on top of that I was born and raised in Johnston, RI.

Don't you just love Tarpon Springs. Whenever we visit Florida we make a point to go to Tarpon Springs and we usually wind up eating at Hella's. It really is a great little to town to roam, shop, eat, etc. Thanks so much for stopping by, enjoy your weekend.

wildove5 from Cumberland, R.I. on February 23, 2013:

My parents live about 20 minutes from here in Spring Hill. I visit about 3-4 times a year and make Tarpon Springs a priority on my list of things to do. Specifically dining at Hella's greek restaurant and Pastry. The food is amazing and the staff personal. Through the years my family has become friendly with one particular waitress " Ella," We visited her after my mothers recent passing, as soon as she saw us without my mother, she cried. It is truly an amazing place! In addition to really cool sponges they also have a great selection of shoes and handbags, every woman's favorites! Thanks for sharing!

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on February 11, 2013:

Hi prasetio30. I had never heard of Tarpon Springs either until we were visiting my in-laws in Florida and they took us there. Now we go whenever we are down there for a visit as it's really an interesting place. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the vote....

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on February 10, 2013:

Beautiful hub. How lucky I am to have found this article this morning. I had never heard about Tarpon Springs before. I am glad to know more about Tarpon Springs from you. I also love all the pictures here. Good job, brother. Thanks for share with us. Voted up!

Prasetio

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on February 10, 2013:

Hi Mary. How are you this Sunday morning? Thanks so much for the continued support, very much appreciated. I know, who knew? Sponges from Florida. NY actually does have the highest number of people with Greek ancestry, just not the highest % of its population. Might make for an interesting Hub? Tarpon Springs population is 10.4% Greek. Have a great day.

Mary Craig from New York on February 10, 2013:

This time you've really done it...sponges from Florida? I never knew! I also thought Astoria, Queens had the largest Greek population in the US :). Your photos are gorgeous as always, composition for the subject and so clear and colorful. Great job!

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on February 10, 2013:

Hi Suzie. It is an interesting place for a visit. It's very close to where my in-laws live in Florida so we go there fairly often. The sponge business is interesting as the different regions of the world vie for the title of Sponge Capital.

Thanks as usual for stopping by and for the vote, share, pin, etc. Have a great day.

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on February 10, 2013:

Hi Bill,

Descriptive and interesting as ever!! This is fascinating, and the Greek look is very evident in lots of bright blue and white in the boats and furniture, love it! Loved all the sponge history here and always thought the Med was THE sponge place, Australia but not Florida.

Great pics and narrative in your usual stylish way, Excellent job!!

All the votes.shares and pinned on travel board!!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 09, 2013:

Hi Bill,

We do seem to be on the same wave length with regard to our Florida hubs. Thanks for the links back to mine. Always happy to share your links as well as they are so well written and illustrated. :))

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on February 09, 2013:

Thanks brandrocker. I do have a video or two that I am considering adding. If you have one let me know. Thanks for stopping by.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on February 09, 2013:

Hey Bill. It's a very interesting place. We've been a few times over the years and we keep going back so there must be something to it. Love the trivial pursuit comment. :) Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

brandrocker on February 09, 2013:

Really interesting. I had no clue about the origin of sponge. And BTW I would like to include a video too to demonstrate the process. Thanks anyway for sharing this hub.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 09, 2013:

That was very interesting, Bill. I had no idea sponges came from there. Thanks for the info; if this ever comes up on Trivial Pursuit I am ready with the answer. :)

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on February 09, 2013:

Hi Peggy. Oh my, are we on the same wavelength or what lately. Did you notice that I have two of your Florida hubs in the links at the bottom? I'll add your hub on Tarpon Springs also. Many thanks.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on February 09, 2013:

hawaiianodysseus. I love that picture. It's actually a mural that was painted on a wall in Tarpon Springs. I had no idea what fish were in it so thank you for helping me to identify them. Also glad this brought back some good memories for you. Many thanks for the really wonderful comments, I do appreciate the support. Have a great day.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on February 09, 2013:

Hi Lenzy. So nice to see you again here on HubPages. Thanks so much for the nice comments. Hope to see you writing again?

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on February 09, 2013:

Hi Carol. Now you have a reason to go back for a visit. Thanks as always for visiting. Have a great weekend. We are digging out here today from the blizzard last night.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 09, 2013:

Great hub Bill. I just linked it to mine titled Greek Sponge Diving Capital of the World in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Great minds think alike! Ha! Many up votes and sharing.

Hawaiian Odysseus from Southeast Washington state on February 09, 2013:

With increasing success, your progress here on HubPages over the last year has been a real privilege for me to follow. Thank you for contributing so much good to the HP community, Bill. I love this hub about sponges. A question I have: Did you create that introductory image? If so, you did an excellent job, my friend. See that fish with the vertical stripes? It's a Convict Tang, or manini, as we Hawaiians called them. We caught a lot of them with spears and throw nets...very good eating fish. Above it is a Parrotfish, or Uhu. Then again, if it has a barb just inside of its tail fin, it might be a Sturgeonfish , or Kala. As you can see, the painting has triggered some nostalgic recall of favorite food fish in the islands. Thanks for the great job you did with this article, Bill.

Lenzy from Arlington, Texas on February 09, 2013:

Hi bdegiulio,

It has been a long time since I have been on hubpages. Your writing is as great as ever. You find the most interesting little places and themes to write about with your creative flair and the photos add a great deal to the story. By the time you add valuable information on where to go and how to get to places in your charming locations you have me hooked.

carol stanley from Arizona on February 09, 2013:

Now I really feel badly. Lived in Florida and never went there. It looks so charming and inviting...and you are so good at writing that way. Thanks for this..Voting up and sharing.