Before there was SpongeBob, Bob o Sfougarakis, there was John Cocoris, the original sponge diver of Tarpon Springs, a small town on the Gulf Coast of Florida near Clearwater Beach. You probably have heard about Tarpon Springs, but do you know its history or how its sponge industry came to be associated with all things Greek? Read on to find out.
The story starts in the mid to late 1800s. Legend has it that a wealthy investment banker from Philadelphia named John K Cheney had come down to Florida for the winter (yes snow birds have flocked to Florida from the Northeast since its beginnings). He noticed sponge boats coming back from Key West with their catch and thought it would be a good idea to invest in the sponge industry. Back then, before the onset of synthetics, sponges made a solid commodity. He came to the Gulf Coast and built warehouses for the curing of sponges near the Anclote Keys. John Cheney and his partner Ernest Meres became the first sponge merchants in Tarpon Springs working for New York investors. In the beginning, sponge divers had come from Cuba and the Bahamas for this work. In fact, the sponge industry had been well established in the first half of the century, so it is not like the Greeks brought it even though they would like to take credit for everything. Small boats would go out into the shallow waters of the Gulf, spearing up sponges with long poles with hooks at the end of them. These spongers would scan the sea bottom in shallow water by using buckets lined with glass at their bottom. The sponges would be brought to Bailey’s Bluff and the Anclote Keys for curing. In order to get the best sponges, however, the boats had to go into deeper water some as deep as 150 feet. For that, only experienced sponge divers could do the job.
Enter the Greek islanders.
Demosthenes Kavasilas, the first sponge diver, and Sylianos Besis, the second, were hired to lead Cheney’s budding sponge business. When the divers went down, they were amazed! The treasures of the unspoiled Gulf met their eyes. Sponges by the thousands darkened the untrodden virgin bars of the reef.Thousands of corals in brilliant pinks, reds, yellows and blues; thick wild grape vines hard to get through, a rainbow of peacock feathers of the sea; underwater gardens teeming with iridescent fishes. They had walked into a diver’s deep sea Eden. They filled the buckets every ten minutes with the best sponges in the world, the large wool sponges, durable, the best and sturdiest in the world. By evening, the sponge boat was filled. The first trip had been a success.
From then, word got out that there was gold under the sea in the form of slimy soft squishy aquatic animal, the oldest in evolutionary history. (Side note: Sponges in general are simple animals thought to have evolved over 500 million years ago. They have diversified into 10,000 different species most of which live in salt water and can live for over 2,000 years.) By the end of 1905, 500 young Greek men, mainly from the Greek islands of Kalymnos, Simi, Aegina, had come to seek their fortunes in sponge diving to Tarpon Springs.
The first Greek to actually settle in Tarpon Springs was named John Cocoris who was a buyer for another Greek sponge investor from New York, Lembesis. He hailed from Leonidion Kynaourias, Greece and had come over in 1895. John and his brothers went out on their own and started their own sponge diving venture. They went back to Greece and recruited more expert divers, diving engines, lifelines, suits and for $180 they purchased a boat named Pandora (it was subsequently renamed Elpis or Hope and the original boat is on display in the central square of Tarpon Springs.) . They parted ways with their employer the Greek investment banker from New York and began the first Greek sponge diving commercial business in Tarpon Springs. On June 8, 1905 the first sponging voyage manned by Greeks set sail into the Gulf of Mexico, thus starting an industry that transformed the little town into a Greek outpost. News about the lucrative sponge industry spread to Greece brining more divers and in some cases entire diving outfits, especially from the Dodecannese and islands like Kalymnos, Halki, Symi, and others from the Aegean like Spetses, Aegena, etc.
Most of those men were bachelors or sole married men who came without their families. The first Greek woman on Tarpon Springs was John Cocoris’ wife. In 1906 she gave birth to a baby girl named Stamatina–the first Greek-American born in Tarpon Springs. While many Greeks returned after making their fortune in Tarpon, many stayed back establishing coffee shops, grocery stores, restaurants and of course, churches and schools.
Tarpon Springs has had a long history as an enclave of Hellenic heritage. Historic photos of past Patriarchs–Athenagoras and Iakovos–posing with the natives are on display in the entrance of the old sponge and sundry store (now an organic soap shop).
Postcards featuring svelte brawny Greek men spearing sponges on the wharf captured the American imagination. The Greek sponge divers put the small town on the map creating a secondary industry of tourism. It has held history as a quaint vacation destination since the 40s and 50s. While sponge diving no longer holds the prominent place it had in its heyday, its attractiveness as a tourist destination has yet to let up.
I had the pleasure of speaking to first mate, Stylianos on one of daily dolphin cruise boats that has become a prime tourist attraction. He spoke fluent Greek and related his love of the sea and all things Greek. His grandfather came over to Tarpon from Kalymnos as a diver. Although he is not in the business, he keeps the traditions and returns to his home island almost every year. The only diving he does, he claims, is for the Cross during the Epiphany in January. He noted with pride how Tarpon holds the record as the most Greek town in America, averaging 25-30% Greek. “My father only speaks Greek,” he cites, “on purpose.” The town hosts an annual deep diver competition. Last year, he says an 11-year-old girl won the competition. She dove without a suit to 100 to 150 feet in depth!
While Stylianos is happy that Tarpon keeps it Greek, “nothing compares to the real thing.”