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Tourists Soak Up Tarpon Springs’ Greek Roots Like A Sponge

Greek sponge diver talks to tourists on boat in historic diving suit in Tarpon Springs FL

Tarpon Springs: On the way to our destination, the diver, who was wearing a heavy waterproof suit, described the process of submerging and searching for the bounty. (photos courtesy of Dreamstime.com)

 By Victor Block

Two women in their 70s, their heads covered in black shawls for protection from the searing sun, gossip in Greek about the latest neighborhood news.  At a restaurant nearby, customers of all ages dine on gyro sandwiches, pickled octopus and squid salad.

Signs on buildings that line the streets identify the Athens Auto Repair shop, Spartan Gas Station and Alexander the Great Apartments. The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, a Byzantine-style church decorated with magnificent stained-glass windows and precious icons, overlooks the scene.

Welcome to Greece? Well, not quite, but it is a Greek community.

Tarpon

Tarpon Springs, Florida, USA – November 11, 2013: Statue of an early sponge Diver in Tarpon Springs, Florida

If you were blindfolded and transported to Tarpon Springs, Fla., you might well think you were in the land of Aristotle, Homer and Plato. That town of about 25,000 inhabitants claims a higher percentage of residents of Greek heritage than any other place in the United States.

Given that demographic, it’s not surprising that the community offers visitors an immersion in Greek culture. Its claim to be “the sponging capital of the world” provides added appeal. Early visitors to the area, attracted by its welcoming environment, included Paleolithic Timucuan Indians and later, Seminoles. The first known non-Native settlers arrived at that spot on Florida’s west coast in 1864. The name of the tiny hamlet which began to evolve there came from the species of fish that thrived in the nearby waters.

An Unexpected Discovery

Then came the accidental stroke of luck that was to catapult the sleepy community onto the national stage. In 1873, turtle fishermen plying the Anclote River, which flows past Tarpon Springs to the Gulf of Mexico, caught sponges in their nets. That prompted a small influx of spongers from Key West and the Bahamas to the area, and sponge packing houses began to spring up to process their haul.

Because most of the sponge beds were only 20 to 30 feet deep, those first crewmen used light-weight poles with hooks on the end to snag their prey. Once on land, the sponges were cleaned, dried and pruned to make them suitable for sale.

Historic Greek sponge diver in antique diving suit dives for sponges in Tarpon Springs FL

Beginning in 1905, everything changed when divers wearing rubberized suits and copper helmets, a more efficient technique born in the Mediterranean, began to harvest the sponges. A flood of experienced sponge divers from Greece sealed the deal and by the end of that year, some 500 Greek men were living in the town, most of them working in the burgeoning industry. Within decades, sponging was generating millions of dollars a year.

However, those heady days were not to last. The first challenge came during the World War II years, when scientists developed synthetic sponges that replaced the more expensive natural kind. The final blow was delivered by ailments and a major algal bloom that decimated the sponge beds.

Even so, an active sponging industry continues to provide a livelihood for the small coterie of people who retrieve, process and sell the natural squeegees. But many more townspeople make their living in tourism, providing shelter, food and recreation to the invasion of visitors who come to relive an interesting, but almost gone, slice of the past.  The main attractions are the lure and lore of the once-flourishing sponging industry and the setting, which resembles a community that has been transplanted from Greece.

Sponge boats at the docks

The sponge docks are where the major action used to be and where vestiges of times past still linger. Several of the remaining sponge boats, when on respite from their work, usually are tied up there.  The colorfully named Spongeorama, adjacent to the docks, is the best place to get a basic course in everything sponge. The story is told through an interesting video and at a small museum (both free). Among tidbits of knowledge are that sponges are the skeletons of once-living sea animals, more than 8,000 species of them inhabit the world’s sea and fresh water habitats and they come with names such as wool, silk, finger and vase sponges.

A Stroll Around Tarpon

After completing a Sponge 101 class and making your way through the gift shop, the next logical step is to experience the industry in person by taking a boat tour. My wife Fyllis and I boarded the St. Nicholas VII with several dozen other passengers. We headed toward an area where I guessed either a small sponge bed rested on the river bottom or members of the crew had earlier surreptitiously placed some sponges. On the way to our destination, the diver, who was wearing a heavy waterproof suit, described the process of submerging and searching for the bounty. Then, after donning his heavy helmet, he lowered himself over the side of the boat, disappeared beneath the gray water for a few minutes and reemerged rather triumphantly with a sponge firmly in his grasp.

Having checked off that experience on our to-do list, Fyllis and I set out for the other major attraction in town — the pervasive Greek culture, which is manifested virtually everywhere we turned.  Restaurants, coffee houses, grocery stores and other establishments offer goods that would be right at home in Athens.

Tarpon

Shops at the sponge docks

A stroll through town helps to breathe life into memories of when sponging was king. Two buildings across the street from each other, both constructed in 1909, once contained shops that sold diving supplies and also housed a saloon where sponge fishermen hung out. A pair of frame packing houses is where sponges went through the six-step process that made them marketable. The modest homes of a number of the original divers are huddled together in a neighborhood aptly called Greektown.

That area is where the highest concentration of Old World touches resides, a setting of houses and businesses surrounding the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. The authenticity of this district was officially recognized when the National Park Service included it on the National Register of Historic Places, listed as a “Traditional Cultural Property.”

Other Attractions

This aspect of Tarpon Springs provides attractions enough to draw a steady stream of callers — but it’s not alone. The setting of pine flatwoods and mangroves, salt marshes and tidal streams is diverse and delightful enough to appeal to people with varied interests.

Fred Howard Park and Sunset Beach, both located at the end of causeways, have inviting stretches of sand and other attractions. Several bayous are perfect for those interested in kayaking, canoeing or stand-up paddle boarding.

The warm-water bayous become winter homes for manatee and dolphins, while eagles and osprey show up each spring to build nests and raise their offspring. Biking and hiking trails pass through miles of unspoiled wilderness, an almost alphabet-long list of game fish — from Atlantic Bonito to Yellow Jack — tempts anglers, and an even lengthier inventory of resident and migratory birds prompts ornithologists to bring their binoculars.

For more information about Tarpon Springs, visit ctsfl.us.

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