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Tarpon Springs, Florida: Greek Sponge Diving Capital of the World

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Sponges in Tarpon Springs, Florida

Sponges in Tarpon Springs, Florida

The Sponge Capital of the World

In March of 1998, my mother and I drove from Houston, Texas, to Englewood, Florida, to visit my aunt and uncle, who live there for about four months of every year. We often decide to take in some sights along the way. It breaks up the trip and informs us about the areas of the country in which we are passing.

This time, we decided to explore the Tarpon Springs area known far and wide for being the Sponge Capital of the World. It is about 30 miles north of St. Petersburg.

According to legend, the name Tarpon Springs came about due to tarpon fish being spotted offshore jumping (springing) in and out of the water.

Greek-American Community

It is a waterfront community made up of many inhabitants who originally came from Greece, primarily for the sponge diving industry. Today Tarpon Springs has more Greek-Americans living there than in almost any other U.S. city.

As the above photo of a sign taken by the waterfront portrays, the area naturally had an abundant supply of natural underwater sponges growing there. With the Greek influence, the harvesting of them took a different turn.

visiting-the-sponge-capital-of-the-world--tarpon-springs--florida

Sponge Diving Industry

Sponge diving became the norm once the Greeks led by John M. Cocoris had a large enough contingent of hearty and well-trained divers on hand to take over that sponge harvesting way of earning a living. It became a multi-million dollar industry.

Heavy helmeted diving suits with oxygen hoses were made available and utilized to gather sponges in deep waters. Some young Greek sponge divers took a deep breath and dove down into more shallow waters without such encumbrances. Calculations of their payment earnings were according to the number of sponges they were able to harvest.

I remember thinking that the hearts and lungs of those divers would have been in fantastic shape to accomplish what they did underwater, all the while holding their breaths. It was a dangerous job, but there were many willing participants. There were thousands of them!

“Diving is a leap of faith plus gravity.”

— Gabrielle Zevin, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac

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"Nature doesn't force us to do anything, we are allowed to adapt to it."

— Franz Kern

Deep Treasure

I still own a first edition book, Deep Treasure, written and signed by Charles Minor Blackford III, who wrote about "A story of the Greek Sponge Fishers of Florida."

The book was published by The John C. Winston Company in 1954. In the author's hand was the following inscription:

"To my boy - Charles Minor the lV From his devoted Daddy - Charles Minor Blackford III. Feb 1954 Author copy." Mr. Blackford then wrote, "And from him Post Mortem to the one I know he would like most to have it. (My maiden name) July 19, 1969."

Charles and I were dating and would probably have married had he not been killed in a Navy airplane crash in Pensacola, Florida.

Today in Tarpon Springs

A red tide of algae substantially wiped out the sponge industry in that part of Florida in the late 1940s, but fortunately, the natural sponges are rebounding, and harvesting takes place in that area. What the sponge fishers did in the interim period was turn to catching shrimp and fish. Today this town has become a noted tourist area.

If you would like to learn more about natural sponges and the history of their harvesting, plus learning about Greek culture, this is the place! Many of the older Greek sponge divers are still available to talk to tourists in the many sponge shops along the old waterfront area. My mother and I enjoyed visiting with several of them while I purchased some unusual and beautiful sponges for some of my art projects.

Greek restaurants abound. You can satisfy your taste buds with savory Greek dishes in several places.

We were happy that we stopped and explored Tarpon Springs. I know I will never again look at a natural sponge without thinking of the harvesting process and all that it entails.

Location of Tarpon Springs in Florida

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Peggy Woods

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