Greek culture & sponge fishing in Tarpon Springs, Florida

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013. Filed under: Florida

St. Nicholas sponge fishing tour boat, Tarpon Springs, Florida.

George Billiris oversees his sponge empire from a modest clapboard office on the sponge docks of Tarpon Springs, Florida. He’s also a repository of local history, a past and present that includes links to the legendary sponge divers of Greece.

George Billiris began diving at age 14 and still runs his sponge empire from the Tarpon Springs docks.

Billiris headquarters on the Tarpon Springs sponge docks.

The finest sponges in the world grow in the nutrient-rich waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In 1905, recruiters went to Greece’s Dodecanese islands and brought back 2,800 people to work in the sponge industry as boat builders, sponge divers, cleaners and packers. These families formed the core of Tarpon Springs, which retains much of its Greek flavour today.

By the mid 1930s, hundreds of boats were working the Gulf of Mexico as far south as Key West, harvesting millions of dollars’ worth of sponges. Competition for sponges became intense during the late 30s and early 40s, as a bacterial blight killed off the sponges and almost destroyed the industry. Rivalry between Key West spongers and the Greeks from Tarpon Springs made headlines in 1938. The incident inspired the film Beyond the 12-Mile Reef (1953), which starred Tarpon Springs and a 17-year-old Robert Wagner.  The sponges eventually rallied and are now plentiful, as they have no natural predators other than humans. Today Tarpon Springs supplies 70% of the world’s natural sponges.

Tarpon Springs is a great place to buy natural sponges and olive oil soap from Greece.

Late afternoon sun slants into George Billiris’s office as he explains how his family was one of the first to arrive from Greece and prosper. Their sponge tour boat the St. Nicholas began operation in 1924, making it one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions. George himself began diving at age 14, going to depths of 160 feet in search of the Gulf’s best sponges. Over the years, George was instrumental in bringing more families from Greece but admits manpower has become a problem.

There are only 20 divers in Tarpon Springs left, he says, most of them single men. No guaranteed salary and long stretches at sea make most look for easier work. Though improvements in equipment (like protective cages over boat propellers) have been made, the job remains extremely dangerous. Just a few years ago, a diver died when his air hose was accidentally severed. Though he was rushed to the surface and medical care, he succumbed to the bends.

Why would anyone continue to dive in this day and age? I ask.  Because there are 1500 commercial uses for natural sponges, George Billiris says. And because it’s in their blood.

The St. Nicholas sponge boat tour leaves from Tarpon Springs docks.

Other than changes to the helmet, sponge diving equipment hasn’t changed much over the years. Most still use a long air hose that runs to the surface. In the Gulf of Mexico, divers go as deep as 160 feet.

Weighted boots help drag the diver to the bottom.

Descending with a rope, an air hose, and a prayer to St. Nicholas, patron saint of Tarpon Springs’ sponge divers.

Sponges are living creatures that attach themselves to the ocean floor and absorb nutrients that flow over them. They need to be scraped and cleaned before their skeletons can be used as natural sponges.

Tarpon Springs is just north of the great Florida Gulf Coast conurbation of Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. It’s a great place to go for Greek food, no matter where you’re staying. If ouzo and retsina are on your menu, consider leaving the car behind and taking the Clearwater Jolley Trolley. The Jolley Trolley runs between Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs, and connects with the St. Petersburg’s Suncoast Beach Trolley.

Voted “Number One Mid-Sized City Destination for the Arts” in 2012 by America Style Magazine, St. Petersburg/Clearwater offers fine cultural experiences along with some of the best beaches in the world. For hotel deals, maps and more, see Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater.

See Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce for more on local restaurants, hotels, history and things to do.

There are many different types of sponges. Flowerpot sponges are great for use as flowerpots.

A monument to Tarpon Springs’ sponge divers on the waterfront.

Dodecanese Boulevard is lined with sponge shops and Greek restaurants.

Pappas Fish Market restaurant

Gulf shrimp taste best with beer on the patio of Pappas Fish Market.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral is home to the Weeping Icon of St. Nicholas. The phenomenon was last observed in 1973.

Sunset Beach Park.

Greek spoken–and late night gyros served–at Plaka Restaurant.




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