The beginning of the sponge-diving activity in Kalymnos dateS back to the depths of history. Nevertheless, relevant evidence exists since 1800. According to this evidence, at the beginning of May, a group of four to seven people sailed with a boat of 6-8 meters and the necessary provisions, in order to fish sponges. Their only equipment was “skandalopetra” (a rock used when diving), in order to quickly reach the bottom and to ensure their endurance in apnea. They were seeing the sponges from the boat by means of a glass and they dived until 30 meters or even more, in order to collect them. They used to return to the island at the beginning of September.
The merchants of Kalymnos, who were in fact itinerants, used to buy and process the sponges and, then they used to sell them to Syros, Nafplio, and Istanbul as well as in Odessa, Kiev, Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Vilnius heading to Western Europe. The industrial revolution in Western Europe created a great need for sponges. A typical example was that, according to the census of 1825, there were 5,000 residents in Kalymnos, who in 1912, when the Italians came to the Dodecanese, increased to 23,200 due to the settlers that came from the near islands, in order to get involved with sponge diving and processing.
In 1869, “skafandro” (i.e. a standard diving suit) appears and revolutionizes sponge diving. The diver is now able to dive in greater depths; he wears a diving suit made of rubber, breathes through a manual air pump situated in the boat using an air pipe, stays longer underwater and collects more sponges. However, due to the ignorance concerning the emergence’s rules, many accidents occurred. More specifically, several people became disabled or even died because of the decompression sickness and the air embolism. These incidents sparked uproar, skafandro was temporarily banned, but it eventually prevailed for the next 100 years. Finally, it was gradually replaced by more advanced diving systems.
The war managed to damage the sponge diving activity to a great extent, as in 1943-1944, when the Germans occupied the islands, out of the 12,500 Kalymnians who used to live there, 9,000 were left and moved mainly to the Middle East. After the war, sponge diving slowly recovers, but Egypt in 1962 and Libya in 1972 banned any sponge diving activity within their territorial waters and, as a consequence, the Greek sponge divers lost access to these rich waters. They were restricted to the Greek waters and the international waters of the central Mediterranean Sea with an annual collection of 40 tons of sponges contrary to the 100-120 tons that they used to collect when they were working on the coasts of North Africa.
In the summer of 1986, a great epidemic outbreak occurred that quickly destroyed the sponges of the Mediterranean Sea. Nevertheless, it seems that within the next decade, it resolved, after having heavily damaged the biotopes of sponges.
The natural sponge, despite its unique characteristics, had been considerably displaced by the plastic sponges. Nevertheless, it managed to maintain its commercial value as a luxury and decorative product.
THE TARPON SPRINGS CASE
Tarpon Springs was founded in 1876 in Florida, next to the banks of the river Anclote, and its first residents were fishermen. In 1890, the banker John Cheney, who had been settled there a year earlier, decided to get systematically involved with the exploitation of the area’s sponges. However, his business was not successful due to the fact that at that point of the Gulf of Mexico waters are deep and local sponge divers used crooks tied up to long poles that could not easily reach the sponges. In 1904, John Cheney hired in his business Ioannis Kokkoris, who came from Leonidio of Kinouria and was a member of a famous family that was involved in sponge diving. Kokkoris suggested Cheney that they should bring machinery and divers from Greece. In 1905, the first Greek divers arrived to Tarpon Springs together with air pumps, skafandra and other fittings, with which “Elpis”, the first boat that Cheney bought, was equipped. The sponge diving boat returned from its first journey with a shipment worth thousands of dollars. The news was quickly spread and in 1905 five hundred Greek seamen arrived to Tarpon Springs-coming mainly from the Dodecanese but also from the islands Aegina and Hydra.
Within a year, Tarpon Springs changed and instead of a small fishing village it turned into a busy commercial centre. The Greek sponge divers brought their customs, dances, religion and language to their new homeland. In the 1950s, the Greek residents were approximately 3,000 and they sent their children to a private Greek school. In 1947-57, the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico was destroyed by an unknown disease that killed sponges and, hence, the community of sponge divers had to deal with many hardships. The marine life started to recover in 1956 and, as a result, the sponge diving activity gradually started to improve. Nowadays, many of the Tarpon Springs’ residents are of Greek origin.
Sponge seems to haves been known in Greece since ancient times, as Homer mentions it in his epic poems. In addition, many other subsequent Greek and Latin authors mention it concerning many uses, such as the protection of warriors by skin irritations and wounds due to the friction created between the chest and the kit. Sponge exists in many seas of the planet. However, the best sponges are found in the Mediterranean Sea and mainly in Cyrenaica, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. High quality sponges can also be found in the Southern Aegean, on the coast of Greece, as well as of Turkey. From the existing 4,000 sponge species, only four are marketable and they are known under the trade names “kapadika”, “fina”, “tsimouha” and “lagofita”.