Friday, August 5, 2016

The Sponge Docks of Tarpon Springs, Florida

Originally posted May 19, 2015.

Once I arrived in Port Richey, Florida, I grabbed one of those tourist maps (advertising and all) and began to scour the brightly colored page to see where I wanted to go first. There were only two criteria: It had to be close-by and it had to be inexpensive. After all, I had a full month to stay in the area and today’s money doesn’t stretch as far as one would think. Decidedly, my first stop was The Sponge Docks in nearby Tarpon Springs.

I noticed this little vignette outside a Greek restaurant - one of many there.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that this is that restaurant. I didn’t make the show, this trip. I will NEXT time I visit. There WILL be a next time.

The Sponge Docks at Tarpon Springs, Florida was once the “Sponge Capital of the World”, but is now mostly a tourist attraction since viscose sponges can be manufactured easier, cheaper and less hazardous to deep-sea divers. There was a blight which spread through the fishing area in 1985 – as in other parts of the world – which caused the demise of the industry. However, sponge fishing is making a comeback. The “real thing” sponge is still quite a luxury item, these days.

Once one knows the history and process whereby these sponges are harvested, one’s appreciation grows for them. The area was settled in 1876, but Greek fishermen were later encouraged to immigrate due to their expertise. Since Greece is surrounded by the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, it contains many islands where the seas are their workplace and their home. It is no coincidence that the Greek language is heard all over town, in the tavernas, restaurants and on the streets when friends happen upon friends. Tarpon Springs has the highest percentage of Greek-Americans of any U.S. city.

A hand-painted scene of Greek Island of Santorini on the outside wall of this bakery.
Visions of Greek lifestyle are painted on restaurant and taverna walls all over town. Descendants of the original immigrants have shops and love to talk about their culture and offer tourists their hand-made trade goods ranging from scented soaps, candles, olive oils, clothing, bric-a-brac and of course, sponges – in many shapes, sizes and forms.

One of the many street-side displays outside sponge shops.
Growing flowering plants never got any easier. Just keep the sponge damp and the “air plants” will grow, bloom and decorate your home.

Just add water to the sponge to keep these plants thriving. I almost bought this, but I'm satisfied at its beauty here.
I don’t know what was being cooked in the many restaurants that lined the main street into town, but it all smelled great. One thing I learned about myself .. its difficult to concentrate on finding and getting a good photographs when my tummy is rumbling and my mouth is watering. It was near an early lunch time, but not quite. I would have to wait a while. I had a lot of exploration to do and I had the entire day to do it. I was taking my time, taking it all in and enjoying being there on such a lovely day. Keep in mind that friends and relatives up north are freezing their body parts off this January, 2015.

The weather and atmosphere could not have been more perfect for a trip to Greece in America.
So much to see. Failure to record the day in pictures was not going to be optional. Some of these small boats were still working sponge boats. There was evidence everywhere that the entire industry was not yet  finished following a red algae blight back in the 1980’s. Some fishermen left their businesses seeking other work. Even if it were only for the local tourist trade or for some limited commerce elsewhere, there were wet nets hanging to dry in the breeze. Good to see.

One such working ship is the "Anastasi" - which means "Resurrection" in Greek.
As I walked by, I could see some water still dripping from the sponges hanging aloft; the deck nets were full.

There is much a person could learn about Sponge Fishing – if that’s the proper term. Sponges are animals that live on the bottom of the ocean – sometimes at greater depths than a SCUBA diver can reach. Each captain has their own favorite fishing grounds of the Gulf. They know where the fishing is good for them for the equipment they have – and they have a lot of it.

This Captain has an afternoon of work ahead of him on board the Anastasi.
This lifestyle is definitely NOT an 8 am to 5 pm type of life. The daylight hours are separated at mid-day to rest and relax. Up before the sun and underway, make your harvest and return to port. After the mid-day break, there will be plenty more work to carry him on into the early evening hours before dark. No time for Ouzo and mezedes, but maybe a Gyro.

Obviously, that would be my choice as a Midwestern landlubber, but Greek food is mostly from the sea. I am only 1/4 Greek by heritage. My Mother’s father was Greek, but he died young. So, I was raised by my grandmother’s heritage as a typical Scots-Irish male on meat and potatoes. The Greek way of life, sadly, I was never really exposed to. It would be educational for me to explore, however. I don’t think I could ever eat deep-fried squid or octopus, though.

The Anastasi's Captain trims unsable parts of each sponge before sun-drying.
My camera caught a trimmed-off piece as it flew from his clippers.

I’ve read some, seen movies and enjoyed being out on the Pacific Ocean onboard a U.S. Navy LST vessel during calm seas, but the Greek sailor’s lifestyle seems a bit too dangerous for me. I suppose, once exposed to it for some length of time under a good skipper, it would still be hard work, but what an adventure it would surely be. I like the style of the Greek Fisherman’s cap. I’ve been told they look good on me, but that review was, indeed, partial and therefore, highly suspect.

This monument honors the young Greeks who came to America to deep-sea dive for sponge.
 I envisioned an “old man of the sea” type, but was surprised to see this young face.

As winds are likely to do, they shifted direction blowing the restaurant-scented winds toward the docks. The mixture of cooking food, the sweetness of salt-sea air mixed in me like I would imagine a real aphrodisiac – if such a thing existed. It did turn me on, so to speak. It also made me hungry. It was time to start “fishing” for a restaurant. It all smelled so fantastic.

This is, perhaps, the largest Greek restaurant on Dodecanse Avenue.
It was packed. I couldn’t get a table, but I did a walk-thru just the same.

While each menu I looked at stated clearly “authentic Greek cuisine, I never doubted it for a second. Competition for your restaurant dollar seemed fierce as restaurant employees stood on the sidewalk and made sure you had copy of the current menu complete with a discount coupon to entice you further. That was fun. It brought back memories of the old days at our Indiana State Fair and during my visit to Tijuana years ago.

I couldn't get a table at Hellas Restaurant, so I did a walk-thru - camera in hand.
I couldn’t get a table at the Hellas Restaurant, but I did a walk-thru and got a shot of this wall mural. The more I smelled the food, the hungrier I got.

Finally, I chose a restaurant, based on immediacy. Besides, I was already in the neighborhood for restaurants. Just a few doors down was the Parthenon. The street hawker was going to give me a menu and a discount coupon, but when it looked like I was going in any way, the took back the menu and extended his arm in a welcoming fashion – no coupon. Ha-ha. Once seated, I glanced at the menu and ordered a Gyro (correctly pronounced year’-oh) with Feta cheese. It came with french fries, which I though odd, but hey, I’m an American – what’s the difference? I wanted some Greek wine, too – a red, to go with lunch. The young, non-Greek waiter brought it right out. So, I had a gyro, fries and a small glass of wine for … $21.00 with tip. (Yeah, such a deal, right?) Hey, I’m on vacation .. or retired .. or something. Its only money. The service and the food were both good.

This is NOT a real shark.
If I could venture a guess, I’d say this would be a photo spot for “I was there” photos – except this was in Florida.

After lunch, there was still time for sight-seeing, window shopping (I’m trying to live small, remember.) and more photos. I shot only about 90 photos that day – at least, that’s what I ended up with after my first run-through editing process. Each one it’s one souvenir, of sorts. I’m glad they’re digital images or I could no longer afford the hobby of photography.

Santorini wall-art for sale.
I like the mock surf board at the top of their display.

On the way back toward my parked car and the subsequent short ride home, I snagged another shot of a gift shop selling Santorini wall-art. I walked back toward the docks to watch the people loading onto the boats which take visitors a short distance out to sea to demonstrate sponge diving with a fully equipped diver, complete with heavy Greek accent to accompany you. I didn’t go, but now wish I had.

There is always somethings to regret not doing when traveling on a budget. I didn’t get to have dinner at the restaurant Saturday night featuring the belly dancer, either. I’m sure that was a real treat. Earlier in my photography career, I was involved with a company that traveled the USA photographing Dance Teams and I really grew an appreciation for the art form.

Yep, that bicycle is covered in sponge.
Yes, that bicycle is covered in sponges making it either very comfortable to ride or not capable of being ridden at all.

Leaving the docks to head back to the car for the ride back to camp, I got this parting shot in a gift shop window display. I hope you appreciate the irony. For some reason, I felt a personal loss at having to leave. Perhaps something left undone.

More "sign wisdom".

Have a good day. Thanks for your visit.



  1. wine makes everything better. I don't think here in Urbappalachia we have any Greek restaurants, so I wouldn't know if I liked it or not. Interesting read. :)

    1. I'm not a big fan of all Greek food, but I like a genuine Gyro when I can get it. I like Ouzo, too. (slurp!) I like Greek dancing, but I have two left feet in that circle dancing they do. I have video shot of me dancing at a GreekFest and it was not pretty. (You can keep the octopus and squid. Some things should not be people food.) Haha

  2. ah come on now, what's a little squid and octopus appetizers?! haha...

    1. Some things should not be food. I just can't imagine. I'll just double-up on Ouzo! Haha

  3. sorry I guess my comment posted twice ... don't know how that happened, but in any event it was a double whammy.

    1. That's okay. I can fix it. No problem. I know what you mean.. know what you mean.

  4. thinking about squid and octopus doesn't really excite me either ... don't think I'd ever eat it myself ... just sayin' ...

    1. I understand that it's deep-fat fried, so that, in itself, should say something about how healthy it is to eat. I dunno. I'm sure it stinks. No amount of lemon will fix that.