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Vintage Pinellas: The Tarpon Springs sponge industry

Bill DeYoung

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Anastasios “Taso” Karistinos has been sponging out of Tarpon Springs for 50 years. Photo: Bill DeYoung.

At one time, it was said, there were so many sponge boats in Tarpon Springs that you could walk from one side of the Anclote River to the other without getting your feet wet.

The first Greek sponge divers arrived in 1905, lured by the calm Gulf waters that so mirrored their life-giving Mediterranean.

The sponge is the exoskeleton of a sedentary, plant-like animal that clings to rock and bottom. Divers in Western Greece had been efficiently collecting sponges for centuries, walking the coastal floor dressed in weighted rubber suits and heavy copper diving helmets, connected to the sponge boat via a length of metered-out air hose. They brought their techniques, and their traditions, to the United States.

By 1920 there were more than 1,500 Greeks living in Tarpon Springs, and more than 200 boats making the trip out the Anclote and into the Gulf, where they’d remain for days, weeks, even months at a time clawing sponges from the seabed with a short, pointed rake and stuffing them into mesh bags.

They raised their families there, went to church, sent their kids to school. They opened coffee shops and bakeries and restaurants devoted to Greek delicacies. They branched out into other areas of business, and the city blossomed.

At the Tarpon Springs Sponge Exchange, distributors, wholesalers and mercantile dealers came from all over the world to bid on great lots of Tarpon Springs wool, yellow and vase sponges. And by the mid 1930s, Tarpon Springs had not only survived the Great Depression, it had prospered. The local sponge industry was a $3 million business.

Sponge Exchange with Sponge Docks in background, 1921. Photo by the Burgert Brothers. Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System.

A global sponge blight crippled the industry in the 1940s and ‘50s, and although the sponges came back, periodic red tide blooms and man-made pollution still took a toll on sponging. As an economic driver, sponging never recovered.

Tourism is the number one industry in today’s Tarpon Springs, which has more Greek residents, per capita, than any other American city.

Anastasios “Taso” Karistinos, 69, owns one of the six commercial sponge boats still operating out of Tarpon Springs. He’s not rich, he admits, but he makes a decent living.

Karistinos was 19 years old when he left the Greek Island of Evia to live and work in Tarpon Springs. He is divorced, and his 46-year-old son Anastasi operates Sponge Divers Supply, not far from the Sponge Docks where Dad keeps his boat, a 46-foot fiberglass classic Greek model, also called Anastasi.

His son, Karistinos explains, has three children of his own. “I don’t want my grandkids to do what I do,” he says. “This is a dangerous, risky job. I did it because I had no choice. I spent so much money, I built that boat and then, you know what they say, you gotta dance the way the music plays.”

Sponge diving is the music he knows. A sponger can’t go out alone – there has to be at least one other person along, to drive the boat when the red-and-white “diver down” flag is aloft.

“I got 800 feet of air hose, and I can go anywhere I want on the bottom,” explains Karistinos. “I have an orange buoy behind me, and the boat follows the buoy. I don’t know where the boat is. I just go anywhere I think there are sponges, and the guy on the boat has to follow that buoy.

“And that’s how we communicate – if I pull down one time and let it go, that means I want to come up. I pull it twice down, plop, one behind the other, that means I want another bag.”

The bulky helmets were long ago traded in for skin-diving masks, although the air hose is still connected to a compressor onboard – spongers don’t have much use for portable air tanks. And the sponges are cut from the seabed, rather than plucked or raked, to allow the animal to regenerate.

Sponging is better in deeper water, but the risks from “The Bends” (the decompression sickness that can kill a diver if he surfaces too quickly) are also greater. For longer trips, and into deeper water, a larger crew is necessary. And, Karistinos admits, good crewmen are getting harder to find.

“Younger people are more attracted to their electronics. They don’t want to go sponging, because it’s physical. Sponging is hard work. A lot of sleepless nights. Bad weather. They’re not into it because they have so many options on the land. Why should they go do this hard work with somebody like me? I’m a pirate. I don’t know how long I’m going to be out there – I can stay a month and still I don’t care.”

Local boys, he laments, “we can’t keep them a week out there, they get sick. Everything bothers them. They want to be home.

“In order to make good money, a good living out of this, you got to stay out more than two weeks. Right after two weeks you start making the money.”

Spongeorama diorama (detail), 2015. Collection of the author.

Monetizing Tarpon Springs’ cultural significance was the primary goal of New Yorkers Lou and Eileen Rozee (nee Rosenblatt), who landed in the city in 1969. The couple purchased the lot at 510 Dodecanese Boulevard, adjacent to the Sponge Docks, and created the first (and to date only) tourist attraction devoted to the Greeks and the salad days of sponging.

Spongeorama site map, 1970s.

Beneath its corrugated aluminum roofs, Spongeorama included a restored 90-foot, two-masted schooner of the type used as a mothership by early spongers, along with a free movie on the history of sponging, from Ancient Greece to the present day, which played on a continuous loop. Gift shops and a “Greek Village” were added.

Taso Karistinos swears he remembers a shallow pool, into which a suited-up diver would descend, and emerge with sponge in hand, to the delight of visitors.

Many remember the walk-through history tour, featuring a series of dioramas – life-sized historical scenes – behind thick panes of glass. Originally, you could push a button and hear the voice of a narrator.

These tableaus combined painted images of divers, seagrass, fish and real sponges, next to depictions of Greek village life using department-store mannequins in vintage costumes, and one unforgettable scene of an unfortunate fellow who’d suffered “The Bends.” The diver-mannequin was clearly dead, rivulets of painted-on “blood” flowing from his mouth and nostrils, as his shipmates looked on with pained expressions.

Next to this tragic scene was a hand-painted sign:

SPONGE DIVING: PROBABLY MOST DANGEROUS OCCUPATION IN UNITED STATES

 – Newsweek Magazine

L.B. Rozee, who’d been a travel writer, journalist and radio and television host, was smitten with Tarpon Springs. It was largely through his efforts that the Sponge Docks were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972.

That year, Lou and Eileen self-published the guide book Sponge Docks, Tarpon Springs Florida: America’s Sponge Diving Birthplace.

Spongeorama expanded in the early 1970s, with a small hotel, a coffee shop and additional shops and boutiques. The Rozees’ boats took visitors on sightseeing cruises up the Anclote and into the Gulf.

When they retired in 1982, and sold the property, Lou and Eileen proudly told the local newspaper that half a million people visited Spongeorama annually – even more than nearby Weeki Wachee Springs, they said.

Time, however, wasn’t kind to Spongeorama, and as the decades passed, along with a succession of new owners, one section after another was closed and its contents sold off.

By 2017, the diorama mannequins, with their painted-on hair and shiny black ethnic moustaches, were literally rotting. People came just to laugh at their faded, rat-gnawed remains.

They were finally retired after Hurricane Irma sent a surge of water and wind up the Anclote and into their glass-fronted chambers.

Today’s Spongeorama consists of a single gift shop, along with a successful excursion boat business, with sightseeing and dolphin cruises on the river and out into the Gulf.

And somewhere in the back of the gift shop, in a mildewed room behind a creaky black door, the 1970s sponge movie is still going on a continuous loop – all day, every day.

Tina Bucuvalas is president of the Greektown Preservation & Heritage Association. A veteran folklorist who spent a dozen years as the head of Florida Cultural Resources, Inc., she is writing a book about the Tarpon Springs sponge industry.

As the cost of fuel and supplies have gone up, she explains, the price for natural sponges has not. Add to that the lack of enthusiasm for the old ways among Tarpon Springs’ young people, and as the old-timers age out, the lifestyle and the profession are dying.

“No one has encouraged members of their family to go into the sponge industry for decades and decades,” she sighs. “I’m afraid there’s not going to be people replacing them, unless something changes drastically.”

Among the gift shops dotting Dodecanese Boulevard on both sides, she explains, most of the natural sponges they sell come from local boats. But sponges harvested in the Bahamas are a small percentage. In a final stroke of irony, American distributors – including those based in Tarpon Springs – are selling Bahamian and local sponges to Greece, where they constitute the majority of sponges sold in tourist stores.

It’s all about the tourists now. Taso Karistinos, who was given the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 2010, says he might retire one day, but he’s certain the legacy of sponging will remain central to life in Tarpon Springs.

“Always, somebody’s going to be here, bring in some sponges just for show,” he says. “But it’s not going to be glory days.”

The Spongeorama gift shop entrance Jan. 2, 2022. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Tarpon at the movies

The 1948 Hollywood melodrama 16 Fathoms Deep opens with the wheezing door of an old passenger bus. Out steps Lloyd Bridges, a duffel bag over his shoulder. He looks up and down the street, and says in a voiceover:

When my trick in the Navy was finished, I got to talking around. Somebody mentioned a place in Florida. Tarpon Springs. I never heard of it. Big sponge-fishing place, biggest in the world. Lots of work for divers. I still never heard of it.

Also starring Lon Chaney Jr., 16 Fathoms Deep fictionalized the story of Tarpon Springs. It was shot there, too, in glorious black and white, right on the docks and along Dodecanese Boulevard.

Although the underwater scenes were done at Marineland in St. Augustine (Watch out for that giant killer turtle!), 16 Fathoms Deep includes lovingly long shots of the old wooden docks, and of boats going in and out of the Anclote.

Tarpon Springs diver and shopowner John Gonatos had a small part in “16 Fathoms Deep.” Photo: Florida Archive.

There’s the original Sponge Exchange, long before it was developed into a quaint collection of gift shops, seen in action as “captains” haul their “prize sponge catches” into the central courtyard for auction.

Take away the sappy love story, the hammy acting and the bad-guy shenanigans, and the movie – a remake of an inferior 1934 film of the same name – displays a startling authenticity vis a vis the process of divers “suiting up” and dropping into the water.

Tarpon Springs was also ground zero for the filming of 1953’s Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, one of the earliest movies shot using the widescreen Cinemascope process. Gilbert Roland stars as a Greek sponge diver named Mike Petrakis, whose hotheaded teenage son Tony (Robert Wagner) wants to wear the rubber suit, and the helmet, and be like Dad.

There are several scenes showing Dodecanese Boulevard and the original Sponge Exchange, and since the movie (unlike 16 Fathoms Deep) was shot in color, there’s a vivid crispness to the images (the underwater scenes for this one were shot in the Bahamas). And both movies accurately depict the Epiphany, the century-old religious ceremony held each January at Spring Bayou.

Yet Beneath the 12-Mile Reef plays out like a seagoing West Side Story, as opposing sides square off – the Greeks vs. the Conchs – with Wagner and Terry Moore as the sponge-crossed lovers, and a cameo appearance in the final minutes that stretches the already-thin limits of believability. Two words: Giant octopus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Ivan Groom

    January 8, 2022at4:20 pm

    Does anyone remember a diving bell for tourists at the end of a wooden boardwalk lined with sponges, shells and coral shops? Or is my 60 year old memory …. visited there a few years ago, and no one I asked remembered.

  2. Bill DeYoung

    Bill DeYoung

    January 8, 2022at6:45 pm

    Ivan Groom: It’s still there (they’ve moved it around over the years). You can see it in the photo of the current Spongeorama shop – a person is taking a photo of someone standing behind it.

  3. Avatar

    Mainaris

    January 11, 2022at12:39 am

    My grandfathers and father were part of this history. My dad was born in Tarpon in 1920 and was very prou to be a Sponger. He sold sponges all his life .

  4. Avatar

    Ivan Groom

    January 11, 2022at6:51 pm

    The bell I remember actually submerged (with me in it). The Spongerama pic seems different. NTL, thanks for your reply.

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