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How Tarpon Springs became a hub for Greek culture and sponging

Sponging, an industry started on the Dodacanese islands in Greece, became part of the history and cultural experience of Tarpon Springs. But, why?

TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. — One of the Tampa Bay area’s hidden gems sits at the north end of Pinellas County. Known for its Greek history and culture, Tarpon Springs is a must-see destination if you’re new in town.

But, how did it become so Greek?

“I am born and raised here in Tarpon Springs, first-generation in Tarpon Springs,” Michael John Targakis, owner of Tarpon Springs Native Tours, said.

His family immigrated to the Tampa Bay area from Greece in the 1950s. By the time they had arrived, a strong Greek culture had developed in Tarpon Springs. 

Why specifically Tarpon Springs?

“In the early 1900s, later 1800s, a gentleman by the name of John Cheney, an importer, and exporter out of Europe, came here via the Atlantic railway,” Targakis explained.

During his vacation in the Tarpon Springs area, Cheney headed out to the Gulf of Mexico where he noticed something familiar.

“[He] made the assumption and the right idea that the Gulf of Mexico was very similar to the Mediterranean. Even the landline here in Tarpon Springs, being a peninsula, is very similar to the Greek islands,” Targakis described.

So, Cheney saw a business opportunity lying right under the surface of the Gulf: sponges. And, he knew just the right people for the job.

“The immigration started with the Greeks coming to Tarpon Springs, and developed the sponge industry because they had been doing it already for a thousand years,” Targakis said.

With the experience and equipment, Greek immigrants turned Tarpon Springs into the sponge capital of the world, just in a few decades. But, maybe you’re wondering, why are sponges so popular?

Targakis explains that sponges are used a lot more in Europe, with the main reason being that older homes don’t have showers. The best way to get water to the top of your head is by using a natural sponge.

“Everyone knows about the absorption of sponges can’t be met. The durability is two to three years,” Targakis explained. “But, the big thing about natural sponges, it has a flow-through system that doesn’t allow bacteria to grow on its fibers. That’s why in the early days they’d use natural sponges in surgery.”

The ancient Greeks figured all of this out about sponges and even used them for cleaning, filtering water, and padding in helmets.

But, sponging really got started on the Dodecanese Islands. That name may sound familiar from Dodecanese Boulevard in Tarpon Springs.

“’Dodeca’ is the number 12 in Greek, ‘nese’ means 'island.' The early settlers, and my family, came from these 12 islands of Greece," Targakis explained.

According to several books on the history of sponge diving, men made a living by trading sponges on these islands. Before any sort of suit was invented, Greeks would dive without clothes, simply holding their breath for several minutes. They used stones to weigh them down, helping divers get to the seafloor faster.

Some of the most skilled divers could dive to depths of 100 feet and stay down there for up to 5 minutes on a single breath.

As the industry grew, technological advances were made, including the creation of a diving suit, called ‘Skafandro’ by the Greeks.

It was a great advancement because now divers could dive deeper and stay underwater a lot longer. However, what they didn’t know about, was the bends. Hundreds of men were left paralyzed after coming to the surface too quickly, and thousands more died.

It got so bad that the Ottoman Empire banned the use of diving suits in the 1880s, and Greeks returned to the practice of ‘skin diving.’

However, just a few decades later, blights destroyed sponge beds throughout the Mediterranean, slowing down harvesting and trade. Two world wars would complicate trade even further, bringing the industry to a near-halt.

Looking for work, the Greeks learned of Tarpon Springs and the vast sea of sponges just waiting to be harvested. So, they packed up their equipment and headed west.

Back in the early 1900s, harvesting sponges wasn’t for the faint of heart. Boat crews could spend one, sometimes two months out at sea, and that’s not even the hard part.

“Starting with the suit from the sponge diver, used from the early 1900s to 1942, 1943, are the shoes. [They are] made out of the lead, leather, and wood, and they weigh about 12 pounds a piece,” Targakis explained.

“The suit would be two layers of canvas, one layer of rubber, a onesie that is watertight, but not waterproof. That weighs 18 pounds. The copper and brass where the wingnuts are, that connect the helmet, weigh 18 pounds. And, the helmet itself, made out of copper, brass, and glass, weighs 38 pounds.”

But wait, there’s more. Before divers would get in the water, two 35 pound lead weights were added. This brings the total suit weight to 172 pounds.

The good news is that diving equipment has drastically improved since then. Divers no longer wear heavy suits made out of metal, and boats only harvest for a couple of weeks before returning to shore.

However, there is some bad news. Sponge harvesting is still an intense job and the industry is rapidly changing in Tarpon Springs. Like many other industries, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find people willing to take the plunge.

“Every now and then you’ll get a guy that says, ‘I hear you can make $1,000 a week working on a sponge boat,’ and, you can,” Targakis said.

“Next thing you know, he gets on a sponge boat, heads out to the Gulf of Mexico with two other Greek guys. This guy gets seasick, starts sucking his thumb, and asking for his mother. Well, guess what? We don’t bring you home. You’re going to stay out there and work. Eventually, you’re going to come back, I’ll pay you your thousand dollars, and I’ll never see you again.”

A familiar face you’ll find at the sponge docks is Anastasios or just ‘Taso’ for short. He’s an expert at sponge harvesting, considering he has been doing it for 50 years!

“It takes not anybody for this job. Has to have a little bit of experience and knowledge for what we do. I love it, if it was any other way, I’d quit a long time ago,” Taso explains.

But, even with fewer people, sponges are still coming in. Taso recently brought in a massive haul of sponges after an 11-day trip.

On nearly every corner, you’ll find Greek-owned shops, many selling sponges of all shapes and sizes. For Targakis, it’s a reminder of his heritage and the place he calls home.

“We’re a vibrant community, we’re strong, we’re strong-minded. It’s like Europe without the Euro. Not in a big hurry, just a good quality of life here,” Targakis said.

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