Tarpon Springs, Florida – February 19, 2007
In 1887, the small community of Tarpon Springs was incorporated with a population of 52. It quickly attracted a large community of Greek immigrants when sponges were discovered offshore.
For a time, Tarpon Springs was considered the sponge capital of the world. An unknown disease caused the sponges to rot in the late 1940s and then artificial sponges were invented in the 1950s. Despite these setbacks, sponge fishing has made a small comeback in Tarpon Springs.
The small sponge boats go out for six weeks at a time with a crew of two to four men who work on shares. The heavily weighted sponge divers run along the bottom, breathing from long air hoses, filling their sponge baskets with sponges. They work at depths from 40 to 100 feet and know much more about the bends than their grandfathers. They take turns diving and those left on deck clean and string the sponges to dry. The sponge remnants left on the bottom grow back in about five years.
They sleep on the decks at night and usually eat fresh fish or spaghetti for six weeks at sea. You can make a living doing this.
I get up at 4:30, scrape the frost from the windshield, and go to the sponge docks looking for work. Little has changed here in the last fifty years. The ancient sponge and shrimp boats are tied up at the docks in the Anclote River. No one is around. Some of the boats have “for sale” signs. It’s the “off” season for sponge diving.
I give up the idea of using my diver certification to get a job today and get on a fishing boat with fifteen Wal-Mart executives who are taking the day to fish and bond. The boat, the Miss Milwaukee, is the same one my father took me out on fifty years ago. The fish have gotten much smaller. I give my two fish to an executive who has made small talk with me during the day.
Here are pictures of the docks and some pelicans.