Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tarpon Springs

Tarpon Springs is a city of around 23,000 people located on the west coast of Florida. It is northwest of Tampa and around the midpoint of the state of Florida. It was established along the Anclote River, about a mile from where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico. The name of the city was inspired by the tarpon, a fish that inhabits the nearby waters. The atmosphere on the Sponge Docks, the epicenter of Tarpon Springs tourism, is noticeably Greek, as Tarpon Springs has the highest percentage of Greek-Americans of any city in the United States. On one side of Dodecanese Boulevard, you see the sponge docks, and lining the other side are Greek restaurants and shops. Many of the shops are owned and operated by the descendants of the city’s first immigrants from Greece.

Sponges were discovered off the west coast of central Florida in 1873. Gradually the sponge business shifted its center from Key West, Cuba and the Bahamas to Tarpon Springs. By 1900 the city of Tarpon Springs was considered the largest sponge port in the United States

Entering the sponge docks from the Anclote River

Ships line the sponge docks, and shops line Dodecanese Boulevard in the background.

This mosaic features a sponge diver retrieving sponges. In the early years, spongers used long poles with grapples to harvest the sponges and harvested sponges only in shallow water.

The mosaic depicts a sponge diver wearing a diving suit with an air hose. In 1905, John Corcoris introduced the first mechanized sponge fishing boat to Tarpon Springs and brought in 500 Greek divers from Greece who had been using a diving suit with air hose (Skafandro suit) since 1865. This suit allowed divers to harvest sponges from deep water.

Becky stands in front of a monument dedicated to the spongers of Tarpon Springs.

Sponges come in many different shapes and sizes. The haphazard arrangement of these sponges has a beauty all its own.

These sponges look like French baguettes to me, but they are actually “tube” sponges.

Tube sponges are for sale outside this shop.

A sponge factory claims to have the largest selection of sponges ever.

At the end of 1906, there were 1500 Greek sponge fishers, and the sponge fleet averaged 200 vessels. More immigrants soon followed and businesses were established to serve the Greek community. The Greek district of Tarpon Springs became a replica of a small seaside village in Greece. Greeks brought their culture, customs, food and drink and knowledge of the sea and sponge diving to Florida.

Greek motifs are found everywhere in this neighborhood.

You can see Greek statuary wherever you look. The bust of a Greek goddess, probably Aphrodite (or Venus), goddess of love, appears in a shop window. It is a reproduction of the remains of the original statue that you can see in the Louvre in Paris.

Michelangelo’s sculpture of David, who slayed Goliath, is in a storefront window. The original is in Florence, Italy.

This Greek goddess is Hebe, the goddess of youth. She was cupbearer to the gods of Olympus and served them nectar and ambrosia. She stands in front of a sandwich shop.

Poseidon, the ocean god, is in his rightful element, but I think he has lost his trident, a three-pronged spear for fishing.

Becky and Robert are sitting by a fountain with a dolphin at one end and Poseidon at the other.

The sponge industry continued to prosper, but misfortune hit the industry in 1938, when a blight infested the sponge beds, and many of the sponges died. Then, in 1948 a red tide, a toxic algae, caused further damage. Around this time, the synthetic sponge was introduced, and the convergence of these two circumstances greatly diminished the sponging industry. Sponges slowly started to return in 1959, with the beds regaining full strength in the 1970s.

Fortunately the sponge beds have survived, and the industry has seen a modest revival in recent years. Professional sponge divers still search the waters off the coast of Tarpon Springs, as deep as 150 feet, for sponges. Most of the sponge boats are owned and operated by people of Greek descent. However, tourism has replaced sponging as Tarpon Springs’ major economic activity. Thousands of visitors each year come to the city to visit the Sponge Docks, see professional divers in action and experience the Greek culture that still permeates the city. It is estimated that the sponge industry brings $2 million a year to the Tarpon Springs economy, but it fosters a $20 million a year tourist industry.

Hellas is the restaurant where we had an authentic Greek lunch.

Mykonos is another Greek restaurant on Dodecanese Boulevard. I’d like to go back and try all of these restaurants one by one.

Parthenon, another Greek restaurant and bakery.

This lady was drumming up business for Mama’s Restaurant.

A market with all Greek products

This merchant will personalize shells with your name.

The shop sells “talismans,” or magic objects that defy evil forces. Glass evil eye amulets are attached to the clothes of a new-born baby, gifts for sweethearts, a new office or a new car. These blue eyes, which symbolize good luck and protection, aim to stop the evil eye’s harmful forces.

The cruise line offers a trip to the beach of Anclote Key.

Robert enjoys a cup of coffee on this warm but overcast day.

The Island Wind also offers tours in the area.

Blue Fin offers deep sea fishing trips.

“The St. Nicholas Boat Lines is the oldest established sponge diving exhibit in the western hemisphere.”

The entry to the boat line’s tour

Sponges enhance the dock where the St. Nicholas is moored. The boat takes you for a half-hour tour down the Anclote River.

Even more sponges on the St Nicholas store front

These sponges are on very tall skewers beside the boat.

The emcee on the St. Nicholas holds up a “finger sponge,” one of the most graceful of the sponges.

A sponge diver puts on his suit in preparation for a sponge diving demonstration. He needs help putting on the suit.

Travis Jewel, sponge diver, is suited up and ready to dive for sponges.

Travis Jewel and Becky, before the dive

Travis has on the “hard hat” with air hose and pole with tines to snare sponges.

Travis in hard hat and diving suit

Travis snares a valuable black sponge.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Tarpon Springs is an exact replica of St. Sophia’s in Constantinople (Istanbul.) The church hosts the annual Epiphany celebration, which includes diving for the cross. On January 6, fifty young Greek-American boys dive into Spring Bayou to retrieve a cross thrown into the water by the Archbishop. Whoever recovers the cross is said to be blessed for a full year, not to mention that he has boasting rights for diving prowess and a great deal of prestige in the community. The statue in front of the cathedral is a young Epiphany diver who has retrieved the cross.

An Epiphany diver with the cross he retrieved

The cathedral inscription

The dome above the altar

The altar of St. Nicholas Cathedral

The podium and stained glass window

A side view of the cathedral

The angel warrior, probably St Michael, vanquishing the devil

The Bishop’s Throne

The icon, which is the last picture, is a painting framed under glass and is known as “the weeping icon of St. Nicholas.” The tears were first observed on December 5, 1970, by a woman who was cleaning the church. No explanation could be found for the “tears.” His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in North and South America, instructed the parish priest to invite qualified persons to examine the icon and state their findings so that, “belief may be strengthened or disbelief established.” December 8, 1973, was the last time the icon stopped weeping. No one knows the message that the weeping icon conveyed nor has anyone been able to offer an explanation for this phenomenon.


The weeping icon of St Nicholas

And to Tarpon Springs,
I say "Athio sas"--goodbye in Greek.

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