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And that is how real sponges arrived in fancy bath stores and were sold in beautiful packaging

The Greek Sponge Divers of Florida


Dr. Ileana Johnson Paugh image

By —— Bio and Archives December 2, 2016

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“Give me a word and I will show you that it comes from Greek.” —Mr. Portokalis, character in “My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding”

Having experienced the excruciating ear pain from failure to equalize the pressure change underwater, I am in awe of any scuba diver who goes underwater to explore the depths of our oceans or, as is the case of pearl divers, to find exquisite pearls that adorn rare and expensive jewels.

There are submersibles that operate at depths of 6,500 feet for scientific reasons, research and discovery.  A previously unknown life form, the sinking of famous ships, submarines, airplanes, ocean acidification from underwater volcanoes, marine life behavior, sharks, whales, and other creatures are explored and studied extensively at depths formerly off-limits to humans.

Pices V is such a submersible that can safely carry three people to depths that man cannot withstand. Even sperm whales’ lungs must collapse at such pressure in order to allow them to survive at 7,000 feet and lower, in their hunt for squid. http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/pressure.html

At sea level, we are comfortable at air pressure of 14.5 pounds per square inch. Our bodies do not react in any way because fluids push outwardly with the same force. But, when diving even a few feet, the pressure starts to be felt by our eardrums. The hydrostatic pressure, the force per unit area exerted by a liquid on a solid mass, grows with every 33 feet by 14.5 psi.

According to NOAA, deep down, the pressure is as much as “the weight of an elephant balanced on a postage stamp, or the equivalent of one person trying to support 50 jumbo jets.”

How do animals survive at such depths? They have more flexible bodies; ribs are connected with “loose, bendable cartilage, which allows the rib cage to collapse at pressures that would easily snap our bones.”

How then can pearl divers learn to cope with the underwater pressure, often without a suit? Some people need ear tubes to be able to withstand even a few feet of water pressure.

A long time ago, in 1932, a movie was made about the “sponge fisherman of the Aegean,” operating in Tarpon Springs, Florida, “a quaint colony” of Greek fishermen who had dived for generations to find the sponges that were used for “washing cars and little Johnny’s back.”

The divers were descendants of the Greeks who used to dive naked with a stone under their arms to fight buoyancy. Their group had established in Tarpon Spring eighty years prior to the making of this film. Flying both the American and the Greek flags, the fishermen showed their pride in America and in their own heritage.

The Rock Island sponge bars were the realm of these “fantastic living things we call sponges.” The creatures thrived on graveled ocean floors.

Diving in an air-compressed suit, the master diver required several men to help him suit up properly for the dangerous dive. It was such a treacherous profession; the young did not seek employment in this field. There was such a shortage of divers that old and skilled men were brought from Greece.

By current standards, diving was an infant technology in 1932.  The diver controlled the air pressure in his suit with his head by touching an air valve. He was tethered to the boat by an air hose and a life line and depended on his mates on board to pull him up if he started going down head first and could not right himself up.

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At the depth of 100 ft., suited in his 570 lbs. behemoth that kept him alive and conscious, the diver had to walk against the current that was sure to bowl him over otherwise. Dragging his cast iron shoes, the diver filled his basket with live sponges of the sea. When the basket was full, he attached it to the life line, signaled to the surface, and they pulled it up.

The divers sought the sheep’s wool sponge (Spongia equina) found in Florida and in the West Indies. This variety was the more valuable but others were harvested as well.

The diver was not protected in any way from encounters with giant marine life on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Barracudas and sharks were a primary danger but giant turtles, in excess of 2,000 lbs., could “bite off a man’s arm.”

After one hour of work, the scuba diver signaled to be pulled up to the surface. While floating helplessly on the surface, bobbing up and down, waiting to be pulled inside the boat, the diver was in danger of being attacked by barracudas.

Pulling his air hose in, the boaters towed the diver into the boat. The diver took his time surfacing, in order to adjust the pressure on his body. If he failed to do so, he suffered from the dreaded “bends.” Many divers became crippled and prematurely old from the “bends.”

Even though hyperbaric oxygenation treatment was tested and developed by the U.S. military after WWI and has been used safely since the 1930s to treat deep sea divers with decompression sickness, these sponge divers did not have such chambers to bring them back slowly and safely to atmospheric pressure.

The marine sponges were “cleared” off the live creature, leaving just its skeleton, the sought-after sponge people used. After a three-month journey, the sponge cargo was auctioned off at the Sponge Exchange after they were dried off on dock. A catch could be worth $90,000, with yearly revenue of one million dollars.

Little creatures that had burrowed themselves inside the sponges were hammered out. The larger sponges were cut into smaller ones while the workers sang the “Song of the Sponge Divers.”

And that is how real sponges arrived in fancy bath stores and were sold in beautiful packaging.

Dr. Ileana Johnson Paugh -- Bio and Archives |

Listen to Dr. Paugh on Butler on Business,  every Wednesday to Thursday at 10:49 AM EST

Dr. Ileana Johnson Paugh, Romanian Conservative is a freelance writer, author, radio commentator, and speaker. Her books, “Echoes of Communism”, “Liberty on Life Support” and “U.N. Agenda 21: Environmental Piracy,” “Communism 2.0: 25 Years Later” are available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

Her commentaries reflect American Exceptionalism, the economy, immigration, and education.Visit her website, ileanajohnson.com

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