March, 2014. Tarpon Springs, Florida. No Excello Here.

Posted on March 22, 2014

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sponge dock 1

That slightly sour-smelling blue, green or yellow sponge hiding under your kitchen sink?

It didn’t come from the Sponge Capital of the World – Tarpon Springs.

Located on a series of bayous feeding into the Gulf of Mexico, this area first attracted attention as a place for winter homes in the late 1870’s.

Those first visitors named the town after spotting tarpon jumping out of the water, but it soon became famous world-wide for something else from the sea – sponges.

sponges in oceanThe natural sponge is the skeletal remains of an aquatic animal that grows attached to the ocean floor. A natural sponge lasts for years, has natural anti-bacterial properties, and is easy to keep clean.

Newly-arrived American settlers discovered sponges in the Florida Keys during the 1820’s, and began using long poles with grapples to rip them off the ocean floor.

The west coast sponge beds around Tarpon Springs were discovered by accident by turtle fisherman in 1873, and soon after spongers from the Keys began moving north to work these new-found beds.

By 1900 the center of the sponge industry had shifted from Key West, Cuba and the Bahamas to Tarpon Springs.

John Corcoris, a Greek immigrant, visited Tarpon as a representative for a sponge buyer in New York in 1896. Corcoris was familiar with the Greek method of harvesting sponges – cutting them, rather than pulling them out by the roots. When cut, if enough root is left, the sponge will re-grow, just like lettuce in a garden. Corcoris though it was obvious that adopting these methods would insure a never-ending inventory of salable sponges. But to do this, you needed divers.DSCN0737

Therefore, in 1905 Corcoris and five other men from his native country formed a sponge business and brought 500 experienced Greek divers to Tarpon Springs.DSCN0733

Encouraged by the larger harvest, buyers soon created a Sponge Exchange, a building with a courtyard in which each sponger could store his take while awaiting the auctions that took place twice a week.

All the activity at the docks and in the Exchange resulted in the establishment of several Greek restaurants, a bank, a cigar company, and other shops. As news of the industry grew, people began coming to see the sponges, so stores began offering them for sale as well as other souvenirs.

By the mid-1930’s there were 200 boats working the Gulf of Mexico, as far north as Apalachicola and as far south as Key West, harvesting nearly 3 million dollars’ worth of sponge a year.

As deep-sea diving equipment improved, the dollar amount of the sponge harvests increased, as divers were able to go deeper into the sea for longer periods of time. For thirty years, the sponge industry was the largest industry in Florida—larger than citrus or tourism.

Then things fell apart.

Beginning in the late 1930’s, a bacterial blight killed the sponges and the industry was destroyed, to be quickly replaced by artificial, disposable commercial products. The beds slowly started to return to health in 1959, finally regaining full strength in the 1970’s.

In recent years, with more Americans interested in natural products, the industry has seen a modest revival. Professional sponge divers still search the waters off the coast of Tarpon Springs, venturing as deep as 150 feet.  Most of the sponge boats are still owned and operated by people of Greek descent.DSCN0739

Divers work today much as they did in the early days. Each boat carries two divers. Sponges are piled on deck, covered with burlap and allowed to rot. The remaining skeleton is cleaned by scraping, beating and repeated washing.

Once clean, they are sold at auction in the Sponge Market. While some are retailed out of local shops, the majority are sold abroad, as Europeans continue to be more interested in natural products than do Americans.

DSCN0735While Tourism has replaced sponging as Tarpon Springs’ major economic activity, thousands of visitors each year visit the Sponge Docks, watch professional divers in action and experience the Greek culture permeating the city.

Today, Tarpon Springs can still be rightfully called the Sponge Capital of the World.

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Posted in: Travel - Florida