The Sponge Industry: Divers, Crews, Captains & Their Work
Cycles of Work
Work on a sponge boat follows both annual and trip cycles. The annual cycle is determined largely by weather. Most boats make their first trip in late March or April, but May through October is the busiest season. The best months are May and June, before hurricane season and the thunderstorms of late summer.
The length of a sponge fishing trip is dependent on a boat’s size and thus its ability to store harvested sponges. Small boats may stay out 2 weeks and larger boats 3 or 4 weeks with favorable conditions. Before leaving port, the captain stocks the boat with sufficient food, fuel, ice, and other necessities.
The location of major sponge beds is widely known, but most captains gradually discover particularly abundant sites. Since their income depends on their ability to locate sponges, they may try to guard their discoveries from other boats. Older divers sometimes pass their knowledge to younger divers whom they consider worthy.
On successful sponge boats, the crew works from dawn to dusk. If there is only one diver, he/she may make multiple dives for a total of 6 to 10 hours per day at depths averaging 6 to 40 feet. If there are 2 divers, they will alternate dives in order to rest. Although they are familiar with the diving tables and the consequences of ignoring them, divers often push the limits of safety by staying down longer in order to harvest more sponges. Many, if not most, divers have been “hit,” a term used to describe the bends.
Sponge boats work sporadically during winter months due to the wind from cold fronts. Instead, the fishermen complete tasks for which they did not have time during the busy working season, such as cleaning and repairing boats or equipment.
Skills and Processes of Sponge Fishing
There are many types of sponges in the Gulf, but only a few are commercially viable. Divers must be able to identify and harvest those that will sell. The most desirable are Rock Island wool, Hudson grass, and yellow sponges. Finger and vase sponges are also sought as decorative items.
Two or three men usually go out on a sponge boat—and between them they serve as captain, divers, engineers, and deckhands. The captain or boat owner usually addresses mechanical issues. The engineer or deckhand watches the diver to see that his airline is working, he is not pulled by the boat, and that the boat is steered in the direction needed by the diver.
The Gulf has strong currents. Divers must have powerful legs to walk or run along the bottom, cutting as many sponges as possible. Carrying a bag full of sponges for hours each day also requires great physical stamina. There are many other dangers, including sharks, infections from coral scrapes or gurry, bad weather such as hurricanes or waterspouts, equipment failure, or recreational boats that run over air lines.
The crew piles newly harvested sponges on the deck, covers them with burlap or old blankets, wets them down frequently, and turns them at least twice per day to accelerate the decomposition process. While the diver is underwater, the men sometimes wash and vigorously squeeze the sponges that have shed their skin so that the gurry, or animal matter, is eliminated. If this process does not eliminate all animal matter or there is not enough deck space, they may hang sponges in net bags over the side of the boat.
Back in port, the crew cleans, sorts, and counts the sponges, then puts them into net bags. The captain then calls buyers to view the catch and make an offer. After a sale, the captain or owner is reimbursed for food and boat expenses, then each crew member receives a share proportional to their work. Most boats spend a week or two in port between trips.
Beliefs and Customs
Until relatively recently, sponge fishermen relied on traditional knowledge about weather patterns. Their maritime skills allowed them to determine the most advantageous time of departure, boat speed, direction, as well as the condition of the bottom. Today spongers use technologically advanced equipment, such as radar and GPS systems, that informs them about overall weather patterns or conditions in a specific location. Nevertheless, they still rely on some natural sources of information, such as the strong surges in the currents at the bottom of the Gulf that precede incoming storms.
Religious traditions remain important. The pilot house of Greek-owned craft inevitably include icons—especially of St. Nicholas, saints’ cards, tamata (ex-votos), crosses, and other religious items. Some display blue beads to ward off the evil eye—a belief common in countries surrounding the Mediterranean.