Visiting Tarpon Springs, Florida: The Sponge Capital of the World
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 of 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.
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.
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 fisherman 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.
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.
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.
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"
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.
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
- Tarpon Springs Events-Things to do-Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks
Your Guide to Tarpon Springs Events and Things to do.
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.
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
Can I dive for sponges with a group in Tarpon Springs?
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