Greek culture & sponge fishing in 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.
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.
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.
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.