If you're looking for some unique culture on your trip to the Sunshine State, look no further than Tarpon Springs in central Florida, home of the famous and century-old Greek sea sponge diving industry. Not only is it unique, it is still authentic and one of Florida's rich subcultures in a state known for its famous amusement attractions.
Tarpon Springs is a must-see attraction, but it goes much deeper than that - like about 60 feet deeper under the sea. The town's Greek history dates back to the days of metal diving helmets and weighted boots - the earliest beginnings of deep sea sponge diving in the United States, an industry that lives on today. And with a population of around 24,000, Tarpon Springs has the largest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the country.
Settled in the late 1800's as a resort destination, Tarpon Springs soon became more famous when an entrepreneur discovered that money could be made from selling the sponges that thrived in the warm ocean waters nearby. The earliest divers arrived from Cuba, the Bahamas, and Key West, harvesting them from simple boats using glass-bottom buckets and long sticks to spear them. But eventually, experienced sponge divers were hired from Greece to work in the burgeoning industry - diving for them rather than spearing dramatically increased the harvest.
By 1905, over 500 sponge divers were at work using around 50 boats. Buyers for the harvested sponges created the Sponge Exchange in 1907, where each sponger could store his catch while awaiting the twice-weekly auctions. Weekly auctions are still held today at the sponge docks and are open to the public.
A marble plaque at the Sponge Exchange on Dodecanese Boulevard honors John Cocoris, founder of the sponging industry in Tarpon Springs, who came from Leonidion, Greece.
Today, despite the revolution of all things synthetic including sponges developed with nylon since the 1940's, natural sponges are still highly prized for their beauty and functionality, and you'll see an active sea sponge culture at work around the Tarpon Springs waterfront.
Sea sponges are also an eco-friendly and sustainable industry. If harvested correctly, sponges will grow back within a few years of being harvested since they leave a base from which it can regenerate and regrow. Harvesting sea sponges also serves to increase the sponge populations in the harvest area.
Divers and fishermen at the sponge docks along Dodecanese Boulevard are happy to chat and tell you all about their harvest and the history of the sponge culture. For many of them, sponging has been a legacy passed down in their families for generations.
Colorful seashells and sponges of all shapes, sizes, species, and color can be found everywhere downtown. Look for unique shapes like the finger sponges that you don't see very often.
If absorbing the local sponge culture leaves you parched and hungry, there are plenty of choices in town for great seafood or authentic, and delicious, Greek fare. Two of my favorites are Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill for seafood and Hellas for Greek food.
Rusty Bellies has fantastic views of the water from which to savor the freshest ceviche. When they're in season October through May, the stone crabs are yummy and offered with traditional cold mustard sauce or warm drawn butter.
Visiting Tarpon Springs is a must if you love Greek food. Hellas offers authentic fare and some twists on traditional favorites. Try the traditional Saganaki cheese, served flaming table side then doused with lemon.
And of course you have to save room for dessert. Even if your stomach says no, stop in the bakery next door for some sweet pastries or baklava for the road.
You can easily spend a few days in Tarpon Springs, especially during festival days, several of which are world famous. The annual Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th is a 100-plus year old Tarpon Springs tradition where local teenage boys dive into Spring Bayou to retrieve a cross thrown into the water by the archbishop. The young man who retrieves it is believed to bring special blessings to his family for the year. For more details and a list of all the celebrated events in the area, visit www.spongedocks.net.
If You Go:
Hellas Restaurant - 785 Dodecanese Boulevard, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill - 937 Dodecanese Boulevard, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
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