Friday, July 13, 2007

On The Sponge Docks

We flew down for our class reunion a day early so that we could make the round of relatives since we were in Florida and they would never forgive us if we stood them up. My parents have retired to the sleepy fishing village of Tarpon Springs, which is one of the few delightfully dated tourist attractions left in Florida.

It began over a hundred years ago as a Greek sponge fishing village. The Greeks have been sponge diving for centuries and when they found out that the Gulf of Mexico is littered with sponges, they immigrated en masse and built the town of Tarpon Springs.

The sponge industry collapsed about fifty years ago, a victim of red tide and industrial polymers. Nevertheless, the town still hangs on to vestiges of the maritime life for its economy. The town icon is the bell-helmeted Captain Nemo-esque deep sea diver. Tour boats cruise down the Ancolote River to the Gulf where a brave member of the crew dons the full 150 pound diving suit and apparatus and plunges overboard to retrieve a pre-planted sponge. All for the benefit of the tourist camcorders.

The docks also have deep sea-fishing cruises, eco-tours, and waterfront dining. The sponge industry still struggles along, selling natural sponges as high-end alternatives to the mass-produced petroleum products that have usurped the name from the lowliest of multi-cellular animals.

Tarpon Springs stubbornly retains is overwhelming Hellenic roots. On Epiphany, the cross-diving ceremony where teenage Greek boys dive into the spring to retrieve a gold cross tossed in by the local Orthodox bishop is an annual spectacle that draws crowds from all over the world. The four or five block main strip along the sponge docks is peppered with Greek restaurants, pastry shops, and souvenir shops. The baby blue Greek cross flies just as proudly as the American stars and stripes.

For our afternoon with my folks we went down to the docks and split Greek salads (Tarpon Springs is the only place on earth where potato salad is a topping to Greek salad) and overstuffed gyros (no sane person can eat at one sitting). My parents prefer the little restaurants along the docks to the world famous but distinctly Red Lobster-ish Pappas. The restaurants are so Greek, you half expect Nia Vardalos to emerge from the kitchen in a big fat wedding gown.

We then went through a gift shop that shows a fifties eras documentary on the history of sponge diving, once considered the most dangerous job in the world. After the movie, they have a series of dioramas displaying information about sponges and sponge diving. The displays are very educational but look like they were put together by particularly gifted middle school students and they haven’t been updated in decades.

As we were leaving, we noticed that a sponge boat fresh from the Gulf had docked and it was brimming with fresh from the seas sponges. From our tour of the “museum” we knew that this bounty might net the crew maybe $500. Working on the water is a tough way to make a living.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: What is your favorite off the beaten path tourist attraction?


TBG said...

Considering my heritage and the fact that I had my own half-Greek sponges traveling with me, I loved Tarpon Springs.

Here's where we ate when we were there last year. Mmmm. Soul food.

But our favorite off-the-beaten-path site—the one we compare all of our travel adventures to—is the Mentone Egg. Whenever the kids complain that we have never taken them to Disney World, or Europe, we say, "But you've seen the Mentone Egg!"

Another favorite spot: The Hindenburg crash site. Oh the humanity.

Anonymous said...

Wow, and there's another large egg attraction in Winlock, WA, which I have never heard of! I know folks who have been to concerts in the Albany egg.

My favorite is the Hat and Boots gas station in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle:


Anonymous said...

Ha ha, when I first read your post I thought it said "Tampon Springs." Oh, I kill me.

yellojkt said...

A Tampan lives in Tampa. I don't know what people from Tarpon Springs call themselves.

yellojkt said...

That Mentone Egg looks nearly as cool as the Gaffney Peach water tower.

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

Sponges are interesting to me believe it or not. I've always felt sorry for them because essentially they are animals, but are treated like inanimate objects. On the other hand, they have no brains, circulatory or nervous systems so it's not like they suffer or anything. Is it possible I've thought about this too much?

Anonymous said...

I had my wedding at the Hat and Boots in Georgetown.

Mooselet said...

Living where I do there are dozens of beaches to choose from, from the glitzy tourist trap known as Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast to the more family friendly yet upwardly mobile beaches of the Sunshine Coast. I like the daggy old beach at Bribie Island. Everyone looks at me like I'm insane, but I just love it. Never too crowded, nice fish-n-chips shop nearby and closer to home than any of the other aforementioned beaches. How can one go wrong?

Whenever I read about sea sponges I cannot help but think of Spongebob Squarepant.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

Hmmm Lucy the Elephant in Margate NJ is my favorite.

Elizabeth said...

I love Nome, Alaska. Just skip the Iditarod and go in the summer, it's beautiful!

Anonymous said...

I love, love, LOVE Tarpon Springs. It's only a short drive from my mother's house. And Hellas (thanks tbg) is one of my favorite eateries down there. I don't know why I thought this, but I was under the impression that Pappas was closed down?

The thing that sucks about Tarpon Springs nowadays is that they got an assload of money after the hurricanes blew through a few years back, and now all the old, dark, creaky-wooden-floored gift shops have ceramic tiles and are well-lit. Ecch. Except for Spongeorama! Hurray for the cheesy dioramas! In the dark! Push the button and watch the oar spin in the barrel!

Anonymous said...

I owned a shop on "the docks" and that place just sucks. No nice way to say it. The people who go there as tourists and locals are cheap bastards who ask for a discount on a .75 cent starfish. Thank God I don't have the shop anymore.