There was a time a little over a century ago when Tarpon Springs, Florida, was a flourishing city because of its sponge harvesting industry. In the early 1900s, 80 percent of the world’s sponge supply came from the warm Gulf of Mexico waters offshore from Tarpon Springs.
Sponge diving is a Greek tradition, and nearly all of the divers and boat operators were Greek immigrants who came to Tarpon Springs seeking work and a new home in America. Today the Greek community is still a major influence on the town.
I first visited Tarpon Springs 40 years ago, when the sponge business was still viable, and dozen’s of boats lined the dock, their masts and rigging reaching skyward. I remember eating at Pappas Restaurant and drinking ouzo (it’s an acquired taste). Today Pappas is gone, as are most of the boats.
Synthetic sponges have all but doomed the natural sponge market, and the sponge harvesting business is a shadow of its boom days a century ago. But sponge tourism still thrives, centered in shops and restaurants along the docks where the few remaining sponge boats tie up.
Take A Sponge Diving Tour And Learn About History
George Billiris still operates his boat, St. Nicholas VII, but today he hauls tourists, not sponges. His family has been in the sponge business in one way or another for nearly a century. His tours last about an hour and include diver Frank Notte in full diving rig, which weighs 172 pounds. Frank goes over the side with the help of deckhands and usually spends about 15 minutes underwater, often returning with a sponge for tourists to see and feel. The trip costs a bargain $15 for adults.
George worries about the future of his sponge boat tours. “I’m the end of the line”, he says, acknowledging that he’s probably the last in his family to be involved in the sponging business. None of the younger members of the family plan to step up and take over the business. “It’s hard to convince them”, he says, “when they might only make $20 to $30,000 a year” with the boat.
The St. Nicholas Boat Line has been a family business since 1924, and you can learn about and book the tours here.
There are still a few working sponge diving boats at the docks on Dodecanese Boulevard. But mostly the Sponge Docks today are about tourism.
The street is lined with souvenir shops and Greek restaurants. The businesses live for the weekends when big crowds bring heavy tourist traffic.
The biggest attraction on the dock is the Spongeorama Sponge Factory. It sells souvenirs and claims to have the largest collection of natural sea sponges in the world. The store has a sponge diving museum and offers a free movie on sponging history. Spongeorama offers sunset and dolphin-watching boat tours of the Anclote River and Gulf of Mexico. Tickets are $18.95 for adults, $9.95 for children.
Also on the dock is the Tarpon Sponge Company. It’s another family-run business, now in its third generation, selling souvenirs and sponge baskets. It claims to offer the largest selection of locally harvested sponges on the dock.
Another family business is the Sponge Diver Supply/Shell Shop. They were once featured on the Dirty Jobs With Mike Rowe program on television. Tarpon Springs sponge diving was also the subject of the 1953 movie Beyond The 12 Mile Reef. It told the story of fierce competition between the sponge diving companies. It starred Robert Wagner, Richard Boone, and Peter Graves. Much of the movie was shot on location in Tarpon Springs.
Wondering how the town got its name? From the giant Tarpon game fish that were abundant in the Gulf waters nearby. They’re still around today but not in the numbers they used to be.
Appreciate The Influence Of The Greek Orthodox Church
Greek families, now in their third and fourth generations, are still a vibrant influence on life in Tarpon Springs. The community is centered around the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which is located on Alt. U.S. 19 (Pinellas Avenue).
The Orthodox Church was established in Tarpon Springs in 1907 by the first wave of Greek sponge divers to immigrate to the town. Eventually, they brought their families to America, and the church grew and flourished. The church started off as a simple wood-frame building, and the current cathedral was completed in 1943.
Every year on the Epiphany, dozens of teenage boys from the church assemble at Spring Bayou to dive for a white cross thrown into the water by the Archbishop of the church. The boy who retrieves the cross then kneels before the Archbishop for a special blessing. The church claims the 100-year-old tradition highlights the largest Epiphany celebration in the Western Hemisphere.
Visitors to the church are welcome. It is customary to light a candle upon entering the sanctuary and offer a short prayer. Services are held Sunday morning and Wednesday and Saturday evenings. The Cathedral is normally open for prayer from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Because of COVID, some restrictions apply. It is best for visitors to contact the church in advance for details.
Enjoy Tarpon Springs’ Offerings Beyond Sponge Diving
The docks are not just about sponges. You will find Wine At The Docks which offers free daily wine tastings, and Greek appetizers. The shop’s wine selection includes some traditional Greek wines from the home country.
Near the docks is the Londono Art Studio on Pinellas Avenue. It is the shop of artist Olga Londono, who hand-paints and sells all the art in the studio. Olga isn’t Greek but she is an immigrant, from Colombia.
Best Restaurants In Tarpon Springs
You can find authentic Greek food along the sponge docks. Yanni’s Greek restaurant serves a traditional grilled octopus, fresh-cooked the way his family has prepared it for decades. But most tourists stick with the Greek salad and gyros. His two-for-one Bloody Marys are a big hit during Happy Hour.
Hellas Restaurant and Bakery specializes in freshly baked Greek delicacies like baklava and spanakopita. Their menu offers many traditional Greek dishes, but there are also hamburgers for less adventurous tourists. Try the homemade Greek potato salad.
Also on the Sponge Dock is Mykonos Restaurant, named after the island in the Greek homeland. They serve the traditional avgolemono soup (chicken soup with lemon) in addition to other native Greek dishes.
Best Hotels In Tarpon Springs
Most people make Tarpon Springs a day trip and move on to somewhere else. For those who want to stay overnight, though, there are several hotels available.
If you prefer a non-chain hotel, try the Tarpon Inn on Tarpon Avenue. It is located near the Tarpon Springs Heritage Center, about a mile from the sponge docks. The hotel is located right by Spring Bayou where the Epiphany dive takes place.
The Hampton Inn and Suites is located on U.S. 19, about a 10-minute drive from the sponge docks. The Fairfield Inn and Suites is also on U.S. 19, in neighboring Holiday, Florida.
Parking at the Sponge Docks is at a premium, especially on weekends. There are several lots at the east end of Dodecanese Boulevard, just as you enter the tourist area. Rates are $3 to $6 for the day. Some stores will validate your parking if you make a purchase.
Note: The St. Pete/Clearwater Visitor’s Bureau assisted me in writing this article and curating my recommendations. I am grateful for their help.