20.000 Divers Under The Sea

FEATURE BY Willard Manus

"No ordeal is more terrifying than that of the sponge-divers and no labour is more arduous for men," wrote Oppian back in the third century B.C.

No one living today is more cognizant of that pronouncement than Torrance R. Parker, a former commercial diver (and head of Parker Diving Services). Parker, born on an Oklahoma farm, first learned to dive in the 1940s on a Greek sponge boat working out of Tarpon Springs, Florida. His mentors, divers from the Aegean islands of Kalymnos and Symi, had been recruited in the first part of the 20th century to fish for sponges in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now Parker has written a book about sponges and the sponge trade, 20,000 DIVERS UNDER THE SEA. He not only deals with his personal experiences as a sponge-diver but goes into the history of the sponge itself. A primitive animal that survives by taking in water through the tiny pores of its body's outer membrane, the sponge has lived under the sea as far back in time as 600 million years ago.

"It is likely that sponges were first discovered after having broken loose from their shallow water holding ground by ocean surges generated by storms at sea," Parker writes. "Now known as rollers, they are sometimes cast ashore after traveling many miles along the bottom, often with the rolling motion wearing away their outer skin, exposing their inner skeleton as if having been professionally cleaned. Sponges, as mentioned in writings of the Old Testament, were probably discovered this way."

Back in the days of Oppian and Aristole, naked divers began bringing up sponges from the Aegean seabed. (The divers, their boats, crewmen and equipment are depicted on Greek pottery dating from 600 B.C.). "The divers used a heavy stone to help them descend rapidly and with less exertion...Divers of Symi and Kalymnos acquired the reputation of being the best deep-water divers in the world, often working at depths of 102 feet," explains the author.

In the mid-19th century, when the eastern Aegean began to be depleted of "the golden fleece of the sea," the Greek divers began to search for new grounds. "In 1840 they sailed in a fleet hundreds of miles across the Mediterranean in boats designed and built by them. Reaching the desolate North African coast, they discovered the world's largest sponge grounds lying in waters offshore Libya near the small coastal town of Derna, a slave port."

The sponge trade was revolutionized in 1863 with the introduction of underwater breathing equipment: a rubberized canvas suit and metal helmet which took compressed air from a surface vessel. The impact of this technology--called "the machine" by the Greeks--was stupendous. Divers could now stay below for an hour or more at a time--and at unheard-of depths--and bring up astounding amounts of sponges. People began to get rich out of the sponge trade.

There was a downside to this bonanza, though. Many of divers who used the new gear began to suffer horrific deaths or near-fatal paralysis caused by nitrogen poisoning (better known as "the bends"). Sponge-diving soon became one of the most dangerous professions in the world.

Marine research and science--specifically, stage decompression tables--eventually made things safer. Conditions for divers improved even more when the center of the sponge trade shifted from the Aegean to the Gulf of Mexico. The mass migration of Greek divers and sailors to Florida's west coast commenced in 1905 and continued unabated until shortly after WW II. Tarpon Springs became a sponge capital, with tens of thousands of people--not just divers, captains and deckhands, but packers, merchants, brokers and boat-builders--taking part in a multi-million-dollar industry.

In Part Two of his well-researched book, Parker interviews some of the survivors of the boom years of the Florida sponge trade. The oral histories of such ex-divers as Nick Pappas (1915-2001), Harry Klimis and Taso Karastinos are rich in warmth, detail and humanity. The same goes for just about everything else in this rare gem of a book.

(245 pages, $12.50; CA. residents add 8.75% sales tax. Mail: Sub-Sea Achives, POB 2471, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. 90279. Fax: 310-377-0704. Tel: 310-265-0094. E-mail: subseaarchives@verizon.net)