The Sponge Divers

Phone: +30 6932 386680

Fax: +30 210 7755070


“IMAGINE, if you can, sliding down an inclined plank from a boat into the sea, clinging firmly to a large, flat stone. You plummet vertically, clearing your ears against a primitive nose-clip while trying to judge the approach of the bottom - a difficult task, as you have no mask. Using the rock as a crude hydroplane, you angle it upwards to avoid a high-speed crash, and so arrive on the seabed to begin work. The depth is 20m, and your task is to locate and cut free as many sponges as you can before your breath runs out. This is a job made doubly difficult by the fact that you have no fins. Your only luxury is a light line tied around your wrist. One sharp tug will get you a free ride back to the surface. After a short rest, down you go again. This was the ancient way of sponge-diving, or 'naked diving'.” (Frank Alen , Diver Magazine, June 1997)







































































































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Diving for sponges has been carried out in Greece since ancient times. The use of sponges was described by Aristotle and mentioned in both Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey. For centuries now the Greek sponge trade has focused around the Dodecanese, with one indisputable epicentre - Kalymnos, the sponge divers' island. Finding sponges, diving to harvest them from the ocean bed and selling them throughout the world is a commerce in which Kalymnos has excelled.


In the old days the “skin diving” method was used. The crew went out to sea in a small boat. They used a cylindrical object with a glass bottom to search the ocean floor for sponges. As soon as one was found, a diver went overboard to get it. He was usually naked and carried a 15 kilogram flat stone, known as the “Skandalopetra” with him to take him down to the bottom quickly. The diver then cut the sponge loose from the bottom and put a special net around it. Depth an bottom time depended on the divers breath holding capacity.Although this was very hard work, this way of diving brought so many sponges to the island that the trade from Kalymnos expanded in a great way around 1800. Halfway the 19th century Kalymnos had several merchants that became very wealthy. Through the big profits they made on the sponges they also gained a big influence on the social life on the island.


As from 1865 trading sponges became “booming business”. The reason for this was the introduction of the standard diving suit or “Skafandro” as the Greeks call it. A merchant from the island of Symi brought equipment, probably Siebe Gorman, to the island. The advantages seemed enormous. Now, divers could stay down as long as they wanted in greater depths. The best sponges could be found at depths of about 70 meters. A diver could now walk on the ocean floor and look for them. 


The introduction of this equipment heralded a 'gold-rush' for sponges. From Kalymnos, ships sailed the Aegean sea and the Mediterranean sea. They sailed as far as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.


By 1880, fortunes were being made from the rich harvests. Much of this money was reinvested in the industry to provide more boats, crews, and divers. Waterfront properties were converted into processing plants, where whole families were employed to beat, clean, clip and pack the precious sponges for export to every major city in the world.


 The original Siebe diving dress and pump were copied and reproduced by local craftsmen, using basic blacksmith's tools and a forge. As a result, most diving was being done with locally made gear, which could be replaced or repaired on the spot.


As the most accessible sponge-beds were gradually depleted, the divers were forced to venture deeper and further afield. Working in the indigo twilight beyond 60m, with no knowledge of decompression illness or dive tables, their working lives were short. Many would survive deep diving over a long period, only to be killed or crippled for life when narcosis so muddled their minds that they were unable to answer simple signals on their lifelines. Believing their divers to be in the clutches of some unknown horror far below, the linesmen would pluck them from the seabed and haul them back to the surface as fast as muscular arms could work. In such situations, most divers would die purple-faced and broken, at the feet of men whose only thought had been to save their lives.


By 1910, the sponge fleet was spending up to seven months a year away from home searching for new grounds, and its passage was marked by a sad trail of divers' graves. Divers continued to push the limits in leaky suits and with foundry-made pumps barely able to supply enough air to keep them alive. One man in three was either dead, crippled, or marked for death before he reached marriageable age. For the families waiting at home, sponge-diving became known as The Tyranny. It took away husbands, fathers and sons, and left behind a community to carry on as best it could.


In the mid-20th century the sponge diving industry had hard times in the Dodekanese. Around 1900 the growth got to her maximum and both world wars caused limitations to the trade. From Kalymnos and other neighboring islands large groups of divers settled in other parts of the world to do what they did best: diving. 


Around 1905 a group of about 500 divers from the Dodekanesos settled in Tarpon Springs, Florida, USA. These days diving helmets are still made by Nicholas Toth. Nick is the grandson of Antonios Lerios, born on Kalymnos, who settled in Florida in 1913 as a helmet maker.

After the second world war the sponge diving industry became much slower in the Dodekanese. In those days Australia refused to work together with Japanese divers in the pearl industry, therefore many Greek divers settled also there.

Many people feel that the introduction of the synthetic sponge meant the end for the sponge diving industry. The biggest problem however, occurred in the mid 80’s when sponges in the Aegean sea turned out to be infected. The rise of the water temperature could be the cause.

In 1962 the Greek government established a Professional Diver’s Training Center in Kalymnos, located in the town, functional until our days.


Today a few sponge diving boats still exist, and the glorious diving history is evident throughout the island. Divers hit by “the bends” are hanging around in town’s cafes telling stories about their dids, some of which may seem unbelievable though very true.


Old boats, copper helmets, pumps, diver tools and finds from the sea bed are nowadays hosted on the islands museums telling unbelievable stories themselves…


Perhaps the most touching of all links with the past is the way it is remembered in dance. The Bends Dance (Choros Michanikou) performed as an attraction to this day, is a depiction of vigorous youth reduced to shuffling helplessness by the demands of “The Tyranny”. It is a fitting reminder of what was once the true price of a sponge.



(Sources : Russel Bernar-Human Biology, Frank Alen-Diver Magazine, Sofia Fotopoulou-Newsfinder) 

Meanwhile, beneath the sea, sponges are gradually making a comeback. They are not yet plentiful, but they can be found readily enough by a fit snorkeller, not to be collected any more, but to be observed together with other interesting parts of the underwater world like shipwrecks and reefs. Local SCUBA diving centers offer daily trips for those interested.



“The Sponge Divers of Kalymnos”