Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Sponge Docks of Tarpon Springs

The city of Tarpon Springs, FL where Tim and I have camped these last two weeks has the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the United States.

Many of these immigrants were drawn here in the 1905, recruited by John Cocrois to work in the sponge industry.

In fact, the Sponges Docks, situated near the point where the Anclote River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, are still a place where one can watch the sponge boats return to harbor at the end of the day.  Greek restaurants, established to feed hungry crews, now cater to curious tourists eager to sample dolmades (grapevine leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables; meat is often included), spanakopita (a spinach and feta cheese pie stuffed between top and bottom layers of phyllo), or moussaka (a casserole featuring eggplant and other vegetables layered with meat sauce and topped with custard).  I chose the spanakopita for my lunch while Tim, never a gastronome, settled for gyros.

For dessert, neither of us could say no to a serving of baklava, a pastry created from layers of flaky phyllo with rivers of crushed nuts (walnuts, pistachios or pecans) and honey oozing out the sides.  Delicious!

Stuffed just like dolmades, we wandering in and out of tourist shops stocked with sponges, curios and Greek foods until we came to the visitors center.  There a knowledgeable docent related some of the history of Tarpon Springs.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
Tarpon Springs, FL
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral is a historic church building and the center of Greek-American life in Tarpon Springs.  Its gold-gilded sanctuary is a sight to see, but even more mesmerizing is the story of its weeping St. Nicholas icon which I've quoted from the church's web site here.

"Beginning December 5, 1970, observers noticed the image was weeping watery tears, but no one can explain why this phenomenon occurred.  Finally, when Archbishop Iakovos arrived from New York City, he examined the icon and instructed the local priest to have qualified professionals study it and state their findings so that "belief may be strengthened or disbelief established."  None could explain it.  The icon continued to weep during the Christmas season for three more years.  December 8, 1973 was the last time the weeping was seen."

The church hosts an annual epiphany celebration on January 6 in which Greek Orthodox boys aged 16 to 18 dive into Spring Bayou to retrieve a cross, using the same free-diving techniques their Greek forefathers brought to America.

Before the Greek immigrants arrived at Tarpon Springs in the early 1900s, black and white fishermen from Key West and the Bahamas wielded hooks to harvest sponges from the Gulf of Mexico.  The Greeks, however, were accustomed to diving for the sedentary aquatic invertebrates with the soft porous bodies.  According to Wikipedia, Greek seamen "went out into the Mediterranean Sea in a small boat and used a cylindrical object with a glass bottom to search the sea floor for sponges.  When one was found, a diver went overboard to get it.  Free diving, he was usually naked and carried a 15 kilograms (33 lb) skandalopetra, a rounded stone tied on a rope to the boat, to take him down to the bottom quickly.  The diver then cut the sponge loose from the bottom and put a special net around it.  Depth and bottom time depended on the diver's lung capacity.  They often went down about 30 meters (100 ft) for up to 5 minutes."

I would love to see that.  Indeed, there are chartered boats today that will take you out to the Gulf to watch the divers (nowadays no longer naked) work.  But we settled instead into our beach chairs back at the campground where we had a ringside seat for watching the boats, trailed by opportunistic pelicans, return to the docks.

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