Friday, February 22, 2008

Fun On The Sponge Dock

I'm a Pisces. That makes me a "water person" by astrological sign, and nothing could be more close to the truth that that. Of the things I have accomplished in life, none has given me more reward and joy than learning to dive. I took my first plunge into the water with a scuba tank when I was 15 years old. After that, there was no turning back; I wanted all the training that I could get as I was able to afford it. Diving, at any level, is not an inexpensive proposition, and diving safely requires a lot of quality education and training. My instructor for that first plunge was a former Navy frogman, trained both in hard helmet and scuba diving, who happened to be in the employ of my father at the Reading Museum, where he was director. In those days, the air tank with a free flow regulator and a weight belt was pretty much standard gear. Nothing more. Times have changed to the point now where divers wear sophisticated computers, demand regulators to deliver either compressed air or nitrox, buoyancy control devices (BCD's), and a whole host of specialized equipment designed to increase underwater efficiency and make the process more simple and hence more safe. But some things never change. And a diver, no matter the form of diving, no matter if it is recreational or commercial has a few basics they must know and treat with respect. The most basic of these basics is "bottom time." Over the years, divers, especially those in the service of our country in the Navy, have devised a "table" that tells the diver how long it is possible to stay in the water and on the bottom at certain depths to avoid the curses that can present themselves to any diver: narcosis and the dreaded "bends." To keep it simple but informative for those of you who have never dived and may not even like the water- the main idea here is that if you stay too long at too great a depth, nitrogen bubbles begin to form in your blood. That turns into a life threatening reality in short order, so this situation must be avoided at all costs. But I digress. When my initial training with the Navy diver was complete, I was so enthusiastic about the sport that he gave me his steel hard helmet that he had kept since his Navy days. To this day, I continue to tote that helmet nearly everywhere I go in the world- such is my love of diving. I was given it in Pennsylvania. I took it to Maine when I moved up there for many years. Then I carted it by cargo ship to an island off the coast of Honduras when we moved to Roatan, where we lived for 5 years. Next to Florida, where it is temporarily in storage until the next time we settle down. That helmet is heavy. Very heavy and has no business being a traveling artifact in the coach. But I miss it all the time, and so our trip to Tarpon Springs to take an interactive sail of an actual and working sponge diving boat was something that had me super excited.

The St. Nicholas VII shown below is part of a family owned business. The Billiris family has owned and operated the company for a long, long time. We picked up our tickets from Ted Billiris at the dock in order to climb aboard. We learned a lot even before the boat came to the dock to pick us up. Ted is a very interesting fellow. I afford great respect to fishermen and captains and those who make their living on the sea. It is a hard, but noble enterprise and it teaches the "fisherman" lessons not easily learned elsewhere. When such a person is willing and ready to share his life and times - sign me up! Interestingly enough, I started doing business with Ted's brother, George Billiris, in the early eighties. We had a retail store on the coast of Maine that sold, among other things, art supplies. I purchased my "silky" and "woolly" sponges for the store and some giant specimens for myself direct from the family, sometimes traveling to Florida and the dock and warehouse to pick out my product personally. The family always treated me special and to say that I always looked forward to going back to the sponge dock would be an understatement. So getting the opportunity to board the ship and see the real deal was certainly a highlight of our time in this area.
If you've ever shopped a coastal town, chances are you happened into a shop that sold hard hat dive helmets that were all polished up in brass and gold and copper. That is not the look of a sponge divers helmet as you may be led to believe. But this is:
In this next sequence of photos, you'll see third generation sponge diver, "Dennis," in full regalia and watch as the crew get him ready for the dive. It takes two to suit him up, check all systems, help him into the water, then protect and handle his hoses while he is submerged.

Right before he takes the plunge, he is handed his rake for harvesting the sponges and the net into which he places them once located. You will notice in these photos that the diver will work close to shore in relatively shallow water. That happens to be where the sponges are right now as they make a comeback after years of struggle caused by a blight that was no doubt a side effect of pollution. But the sponges are back strong now, so the boat does not need to travel far to carry out the demonstration.
With air in his suit, the diver floats, even though he is carrying approximately his body weight in lead to help him sink to and stay on the bottom when he is ready.
All divers, all types of divers, check gear function on the surface before submerging, and signal to their tenders that in fact everything is working and they are ready to head down.
We watch over the side of the boat in great anticipation. We follow the bubbles as does the tender and watch to make sure that no air line or safety line becomes entangled, and that no boats are headed our way which could sever the air hose and bring about disaster for the diver.
Captain Clay, himself a life long sponge diver, narrates both what we are and are not seeing while the diver is under. Most of the dive community are Greek. Captain Clay is a Cajun by birth, but he fits in beautifully and he has more knowledge about this industry than you could ever hope to learn without having been there for a lifetime yourself. Many tours we have taken across the country were hosted by college students or a guide who was given the text that he was supposed to impart to us during the tour. That is not the case here. The guide, the captain, the diver, the boat owner, the crew- all have made sponge diving their lifelong love and business. The expertise was amazing and we were down right giddy about how exciting this adventure was...
The next sequence of shots will bring the diver back on board and help him out of his gear.

Once the diver is safely on board, the crew bring around the living sponges (this type (woolly) is black as it comes out of the water alive) and only has the look of store bought "natural sponge" once the living material is cleaned from the "skeleton," which is the sponge as you know it.
Thrilled at what we have just witnessed and learned, we ask the diver to autograph a postcard of himself in full gear offered to us on board. Thanks, Dennis! Great job. Dive safely. RESPECT!
I had never seen a helmet diver's shoe up close and personal. There is a thick metal plate screwed to the bottom of the leather boot. Here his tender makes an adjustment to that metal plate with a Phillips screwdriver. After the equipment tune up, Dennis will be ready for his next demonstration. If you are EVER near Tarpon Springs, by all means stop by the dock and see about taking the sponge boat tour and demonstration. It is simply terrific!

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