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Sponge Diving / Harvesting – A Brief History

The skill of Sponge Diving is most significant to the natural sea sponge industry as it provides the means in which the sea sponges are collected from the ocean floors.

Sponge diving is extremely significant for Kalymnos Greece, (a small island in the Aegean Sea, south of Greece) with the inhabitants of this island playing a crucial role in the pioneering and development of this trade. Much of the islands rich history revolves around the exploits of the islands famous sponge divers and the sponge harvesting industry. Sponge Diving has been the life blood of the island for many years and it is this rare skill and livelihood which differentiates Kalymnos from the rest of the world.

From the naked divers in the mid 19th century who would plummet great depths with only the assistance of heavy rocks, through to the 20th century where divers would submerge in heavy suits and be fed air from compressors on the surface, men from Kalymnos have been trawling the seas namely around Greece, Libya and Tunisia in search of the sea sponge. 

The journey would commence not long after Easter where the island inhabitant’s would converge to the main square to farewell the fleet of approximately 500 men. The ships would be blessed by local priests and there would be lengthy celebrations including food, wine and dance. The fleets would be away from their families for up to six months at a time with many divers dragged drunk onto their vessels in order to set sail.

Sponge diving was the heart and soul of  Kalymnos island, and many of these men who were part of this historical journey, would risk their lives in the process. Many men would return to their families paralysed due to accidents at depth, some men would not ever return and would be buried by their fellow crewmates at sea or on foreign soil.

The story of sponge diving is certainly both fascinating and intriguing. It is a story which serves as a reminder to all, of the commitment and hardship people have encountered throughout history in pioneering and developing the natural sponge industry to what it is today.

Today sponge diving has changed in many ways and the original Kalymnos Sponge Divers have decreased to only a handful of crews, although these few crews are still quite active around the Mediterranean.  Today the risks associated with sponge diving are significantly less due to the advancements in diving equipment and technologies.

Sponge harvesting has shifted away from traditional Mediterranean sources such as Greece, Libya and Tunisia, although not completely, and has now moved to areas such as Florida US, the Bahamas and Cuba where the people living in these areas are now involved in the collection and supply of sea sponges. Even in areas such as the Pacific basin there is small fishing communities who depend on sponge harvesting as their primary source of income.


 

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