Pushing The Limits

FEATURE by Willard Manus

Five years ago I reviewed in this magazine The Bellstone--The Greek Sponge Divers of the Aegean--One American's Journey Home. Written by Michael N. Kalafatas, the book (published by University Press of New England) told the illuminating and compelling story of the author's ancestors, the famed sphoungarades from the island of Symi. For centuries the divers had fanned out annually across the Aegean in small boats, spending as much as seven months away from home. These brave, hardy souls dived with held breath, clutching on to a flat marble slab (the bellstone), going as deep as seventy or eighty feet to tear sponges from the bottom of the sea. Then, in the early part of the 20th century, the first underwater breathing equipment was tried out on the sphoungarades, with colossal effects.

Productivity was increased by a hundredfold. Divers could stay down for hours and take sponges by the dozen. The sponge business was revolutionized. Instead of just making a living out of sponges, people could get rich. Then came the unexpected impact of nitrogen poisoning--better known as the bends. Divers were stricken left and right, felled by the crippling, sometimes fatal, effect of breathing compressed air at depth.

Confronted by the suffering of their sons and husbands, the women of Symi rioted against "the machine." Their rebellion and the subsequent counterattack by the greedy sponge merchants and captains were recounted in Winter Dream, an epic poem by the author's grandfather, Metrophanes Kalafatas, a Symian schoolteacher.

Now Michael Kalafatas' book has been turned into a 50-minute documentary film, PUSHING THE LIMITS: THE STORY OF GREEK SPONGE DIVING, produced by Terramar Productions, a wing of Mystic Aquarium and the Sea Research Foundation, which is headed by Dr. Robert Ballard, best known for his discovery of the Titanic and underwater explorations of the Bismarck, Lusitania and Britanni. John Anderson directed and edited the film.

PUSHING THE LIMITS tells its story in skillful cinematic fashion, melding vintage black and white footage and still photographs with modern-day action shots and interviews of prominent people, including divemaster Torrance Parker, sponge merchant Michael Cantonis and Nicholas Toth, the last person in the world still making the "hard-hat" diving helmets favored by commercial divers.

The film also deals with the sponge trade in the Gulf of Mexico which was founded by divers from Symi and Kalymnos, who turned Tarpon Springs, Florida into a replica of a Greek island village. PUSHING THE LIMITS also contains excerpts from Winter Dream, translated into English by Olga Broumas, plus an original song, Papou Mou, (My Grandfather), written and performed by Demetra Kalafatas Bowers, another grandchild of Metrophanes Kalafatas.

Michael Kalafatas narrates the film, paying tribute not just to his grandfather but to Mother Symi and her faded but not forgotten world.

PUSHING THE LIMITS film can be seen gratis in schools and aquariums across the country, via Channel Sea. Thanks to internet access, the public can also view it worldwide and free of charge by googling "Channel Sea Pushing the Limits." The link is here.