The Sponge Hunters of Tarpon Springs

Iconic Communities, Odd Jobs, On the Road, People
on November 26, 2000

On dry land, sponge diver Ali Uzunboylu moves about awkwardly in his 154 pounds of canvas and rubber suit and brass helmet. But underwater in the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs, Fla., he glides along gracefully, almost weightlessly.

I walk like a man on the moon, he says.

Uzunboylu is a professional sponge diver. He and others like him work off the Tarpon Springs sponge boats throughout the Gulf of Mexicoas far north as Apalachicola and as far south as Key Weststaying out up to 20 days at a time with a crew of four to six, searching for natural sponges in waters as deep as 150 feet.

Most boats traditionally are owned and run by those of Greek descent, says Angelo Billiris, captain of the St. Nicholas VII and general manager of the St. Nicholas Boat Line. He introduces Uzunboylu, who has been a sponge diver for 40 years, as Turkishthen quickly adds, but his mother was Greek.

Angelos brother, George, the boat lines president, has trained more than 500 sponge divers in his 50 years in the industry. He explains that in the early 1900s, a Greek immigrant named John Cocoris established the sponge industry here with John Cheyney, his employer. They hired experienced divers from Greece, and the industry and town grew with them.

Greek divers, boat builders, deck hands, and buyers organized a system of buying and grading sponges. They established a focal point, a Sponge Exchange, with cluvas (storage bins) around the perimeter with an auction block in the center, George says. We gained a reputation as being the Sponge Capital of the World. We were the only town (in the area) in the depression that didnt have a soup line.

The industry grew to 180 sponge diving boats before 1946, when the sponge beds were destroyed by the red tide, a toxic algae. Sponges slowly started to return in 1959, with the beds regaining full strength in the 1970s. Now, Billiris sells sponges to countries all over the world.

The sponges start as single-celled animals, attached to rocks, shells, or coral. Sponges, which are actually the skeleton of the animal, come in five primary grades: wool (considered the Cadillac of sponges), yellow, wire, grass, and finger sponges.

Sponges must be at least 5 inches in diameter to be harvested.

They are a renewable resource, George says. When you pull the sponge, if you leave a piece behind, you have re-growth. We get 18 to 22 percent more sponges next year (that way).

Visitors can stroll down Dodecanese Boulevard past the quaint shops, many owned by descendants of the citys founding families, and buy sponges and Greek-themed merchandise, or be lured to the restaurants by the aroma of spanikopita (spinach pie), gyros, and other Greek delicacies. At the Spongeorama Cinematic Theater, owned by the Koulianos and Tsourakis families, a free 28-minute movie acquaints tourists with the sponge industry. The Tarpon Springs Cultural Center brings the historical and cultural values of the community into perspective, and an aquarium showcases other sea life. The sponge industry brings $2 million a year to the Tarpon Springs economy and helps nurture a $20 million a year tourist industry.

The St. Nicholas VII takes visitors on daily informational sponge diving jaunts. You really come off that boat knowing about the sponge industry, George says. We also take about 7,000 to 10,000 children a year on educational field trips.

Susan Miller, a native Floridian who now lives in Cleveland, recently visited Tarpon Springs with her husband and son after a 22-year absence.

The sponge industry has stayed the same, she says. This is the cool part of Florida that most people dont know. It has local flavor.

Ted, another Billiris brother and vice president of the boat line, often hears that sentiment. One woman told me that her grandfather brought her father here, and then her father brought her, and she brought her 15-year-old twins. They found it so interesting. This is real life.