The Sponge Hunters of Tarpon Springs

Ever stood in the shower, washing away the day with your favorite sea sponge and thought, “I wonder where this perfectly porous creation came from”? We thought so!

The answer is probably a lot more fascinating than you might think. You see, real sponges, the lovely, luxurious kind that grow right in the ocean, are hand-harvested by courageous divers. It may sound a little far-fetched in this day and age, but it’s a tale as old as time.

Hop in the Time Machine

The original art of harvesting natural sea sponges started in Greece, where mentions of the unique organisms date back to Plato. For years, divers risked their lives with rudimentary undersea equipment to fuel the madly growing Mediterranean market for sponges.

But with these sea creatures being so sought-after, over-harvesting started to take its toll, and in the 20th century, two world wars and an inexplicable sponge disease essentially wiped out Greece’s sponge trade. The country’s experienced divers looked elsewhere for places to put their unparalleled skills to use, and many ended up in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

There a man named John Cheney had discovered there was money to be made from the abundant sponges growing off the Gulf. With new equipment, including rubberized diving suits and helmets, it became possible for divers to stay underwater longer. Each new technological advance allowed the sponge hunters to travel deeper beneath the sea.

The market was booming, new docks were constructed left and right, and soon a flurry of shops also sprinkled the waterfront. By the shore, it looked and felt like a traditional European village; Tarpon Springs was the new “sponge capital of the world.” But a plot twist was inevitable.

Close to Extinction

When a blight struck the Gulf of Mexico in the 1950s, the industry unexpectedly collapsed and did not recover until decades later when new beds of sponges were discovered. After a significant lull out of anyone’s control but Mother Nature’s, the sponges began to naturally proliferate once more.

The right temperatures, rock masses, and available nutrients added up to a plethora of high-quality sponges along the bottom of the sea. For long-time Greek divers, it was like the stars had finally aligned again. By the 1980s, they were back in business, and sponge hunting was more lucrative than ever.

Tarpon Springs Tragedy

Because of the hot market created by high demand, large numbers of inexperienced hunters also flocked to Tarpon Springs. In 1989, the New York Times (NYT) published an article about the ensuing calamity. “Where a year ago only five boats went out from here in search of sponges, there are now 50,” the author wrote. In short succession, a handful of rookie divers had lost their lives in the depths of the ocean.

Expert sponge hunters from Greece blamed not only inexperience but impatience as a key factor in the accidents. They described the finesse required to work with the Gulf’s strong currents in order to retrieve a sponge seemingly as close as five feet away. “You wait, you go around the current. But some of the new guys can't wait. They don't see sponges lying there; they see money,” one diver explained in the same NYT story.

Ultimately, as the market for sponges stabilized, so did the pool of divers committed to taking on the Gulf’s often turbulent waters. Most of the newbies returned to wherever they came from, leaving Tarpon Springs to its traditional routines.

Flash Forward

Today, the region’s reputation as being one of the most prolific areas to harvest natural sponges around the globe remains intact. (Thank goodness for bathers and spa-lovers everywhere!) And the sponge industry also continues to define the distinctive flavor of Tarpon Springs’ culture.