History: The Greeks Arrive
John Cocoris and his three brothers surveyed the Gulf and found it full of sponges at all depths. They believed that more and better sponges could be gathered with deep-sea diving methods common in the Aegean. Sponges had long been harvested in Greece with breath-hold diving and hooking, but in 1863 deep-sea diving utilizing a rubberized canvas suit attached to a metal helmet and hand-cranked air compressor was introduced into the Dodecanese Islands. It increased production dramatically, but was extremely dangerous because many divers suffered from crippling bends (decompression sickness). The Cocoris brothers brought a crew and diving equipment from Greece. The first diver reported, “There are enough sponges down there to supply the whole world.”
In Greece, sponge diving crews from the Dodecanese islands of Kalymnos, Halki, and Symi and the Saronic Gulf islands of Aegina and Hydra learned about Tarpon Springs through letters, newspaper articles, and advertisements offering to pay travel expenses. In the summer of 1905, about 500 men arrived. Within a few years, there were 100 sponge boats based in Tarpon Springs and up to 1,500 Greeks working Florida waters.
Sponge merchants established warehouses with branches in their home islands and international trade centers. European buyers visited frequently and investors came to finance sponge fishing ventures or boat building. The Sponge Exchange was founded across from the sponge docks between 1902 and 1908. The cooperative warehouse, with iron-grilled storage cells separating the catches, was the site of sponge auctions every Tuesday and Friday. In the early years, the Greeks dedicated a portion of the harvest from each trip to build a church dedicated to St. Nicholas, patron saint of mariners. With the spongers came related maritime businesses: ship chandlers, machine shops, boat builders, a sail loft, and sponge packing houses.
Using both deep-sea diving and hooking techniques on boats with sails and eventually engines, the Greeks harvested four times the quantity and often better quality sponges from deeper waters than the Conchs. They revolutionized the sponge industry and shifted its center to Tarpon Springs. The combined fleets of the Greeks and Conchs made sponges Florida’s most lucrative sea product during the early twentieth century.