Soaking in Sun, Sponges, and Greek Culture in Tarpon Springs
It’s a warm sunny day as I sit outside a Greek restaurant on a street called Dodecanese and look at Halki Market across the street and listen to Greek music being played at the restaurant where I am eating. I hear waitresses and restaurant managers yell across the street to each other in Greek. At Helki Market, I had perused a large selection of olive oils along with some Greek yogurt, crackers, breads and other products, while an action movie in English with Greek subtitles was shown on TV. I spent my day learning about sponge diving, which the Greeks are famous for, and I’m ready to enjoy a Greek salad (love the feta cheese) and some baklava.
There’s just one thing.
I’m not in Greece.
I’m in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
Florida’s cultural diversity beyond the Latino and Haitian populations is not always well explored. Before I moved to the state, a source for a story who was a resident of north Florida proudly told me he lived in the Redneck Riviera of the state. And before moving to the Gulf Coast, I lived in Lakeland, where the hometown paper regularly advertised the upcoming Redneck Games at the Bubba Mud Ranch. You get the idea.
So I jumped at the chance to explore something beyond Florida’s usual cultural milieu, and it led me to the “Sponge Capital of the World,” or Tarpon Springs, which is north of Clearwater.
Tarpon Springs became famous when, in the late 19th century, tales of sponges in the Gulf of Mexico lured a number of Greek immigrants who were sponge divers in their country. The first man to bring word to Greece of the abundance of sponges was John Cocoris, and you’ll find his statue in the historical Sponge Docks area of town. “Soon the sponge industry of Southwest Florida became one of the richest in the world,” according to a documentary film played when you visit the store The Sponge Factory.
According to the movie, sponge diving was not an easy task. It usually entailed two men going out to sea in glass-bottom boats to better look for sponges. They were equipped with large spears to try and acquire sponges. However, to enter the water, they would wear dive suits called skafandro, which can best be described as old-fashioned looking astronaut suits, complete with clunky, heavy head and foot gear (see the slideshow at the top of this article for a historic picture of the dive suit). The men would go to depths of up to 150 feet to search for sponges. Sometimes their journeys took days; other times, they took weeks.
By the 1920s, sponge diving was the largest industry for Tarpon Springs. Divers sold the sponges for a number of uses that continue today, including for florists (finger sponges used in bouquets and flower pot sponges used to hold plants or bouquets), in aquariums, for bathing, washing cars, and housecleaning. In fact, there are actually 5,000 different kinds of sponges (who knew?) but only 12 that are of commercial value, I learn from a display at the Spongeorama Exhibit Center.
The sponge industry took a hit in the 1920s and 1930s when a disease plagued a number of the sponges in the Gulf. Following that, the invention of artificial sponges also deeply affected the sponge industry. However, some sponge diving continues today in Tarpon Springs (along with commercial fishing), and the city continues to thrive on tourism. As for the Greek influence, a 2010 publication from the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce says no other city in the U.S. has a higher percentage of residents of Greek heritage. Greek immigrants continue to arrive in the city today, the publication states.
Speaking of Tourism…
Tarpon Springs has a historic downtown, a winery that’s worth a visit (Tarpon Springs Castle Winery), plenty of fishing and nearby parks, and other charming attractions, but go to the Sponge Docks if you want to get a feel for the town’s Greek culture. I went to the Sponge Docks expecting to still see men in the astronaut-looking dive suits emerging from the water, but I was, of course, wrong on that. Sponge Docks is what they call the tourist area where you can find a wealth of Greek restaurants and souvenir shops and hear Greek music and the language as you stroll along.
A visit to some of the souvenir shops will give you perspective on the various types of sponges found in the Gulf. You’ll also get your fill of olive oil-based soaps and lotions from Greece. Some stores, such as the aforementioned Sponge Factory and Helki Market, feature imported Greek food products mixed in with “touristy” Florida food products. For instance, The Sponge Factory sells kalamata olives, Greek dressing, and Greek crackers alongside Florida taffy.
Of course, restaurants will try and lure you in–a man outside The Sponge Factory ensured me I’d have an authentic Greek meal at Mama’s Greek Cuisine on Dodecanese Boulevard. “Tell them John sent you, so they know I’m doing my job,” he says to me. I was enticed by the restaurant’s coupon for a free glass of Greek wine or baklava. The food filled me up nicely, and I enjoyed sitting outside to eat my salad, bread, and baklava. (Indoor seating is also available).
As you walk around the Sponge Docks, you’ll likely feel as if you’ve been transplanted to the Mediterranean with the large number of Greek restaurants, the music you’ll hear, and the shops, one of which advertises its Greek-speaking toys. You can even take a short boat trip (approximately $15) on the Gulf to learn more about the town’s heritage. I leave the Tarpon Springs spongeless but with my hands feeling soft and smelling sweet from the number of olive oil lotion samples I’ve tried.