Sponge diving got its start about 300 years ago. The center of the sponge industry began on a small island in the
Aegean Sea, southeast of Greece, called Kalymnos. Although sponge diving has been a profitable business for many Greek islands over the last centuries, Kalymnos appears to be the central location of the origin of sponge diving. The Greek islands' water sources have proved to be very suitable for the growth of sponges, because of the warm temperatures. It is many people's opinion that the best sponges are harvested from the southeast Mediterranean Sea.
It is unknown when sponges first became objects that people owned. But, in ancient writing (Plato, Homerus) the sponge was mentioned as being commonly used for bathing. At about the same time, sponge diving developed in Kalymnos. Currently, sponge diving is the oldest profession of the island.
In the beginning of sponge diving, it was called “skin diving”. A small boat with crew would set out to sea carrying a cylinder shaped object that had a glass bottom which was used to view the ocean floor for sponges. When a sponge was spotted, the diver would jump overboard, often naked and get the sponge. The diver would carry in his arms a 15 kilogram stone called a skandalopetra to take him down to the bottom of the ocean quicker. The diver would cut the sponge loose from the ocean floor and place a net around it to lift the sponge up to the boat. The diver could usually dive to about 30 meters and remain underwater for 3 to 5 minutes.
Around 1800, sponge diving earned many people a lot of money, and around the mid 19th century Kalymnos had several merchants that were very wealthy. Then, in 1865, the sponge business boomed again with the invention of the standard diving suit, called the skafandro. Now, divers could stay down much longer and go down to deeper depths. The divers soon discovered that the larger, better quality sponges could be found at about 70 meters deep.
Kalymnos sponge ships began sailing the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. They sailed as far as Libya, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, and they stayed at sea for at least six months.
The standard suit increased the profits of the sponge merchants, but it had deathly effects on the sponge divers. Decompression sickness began to show up among many divers. This disease often led to paralysis, and eventually death. In the first year the standard suit was used, almost half of the divers were paralyzed or died. It has been recorded that about 10,000 divers died and 20,000 were permanently paralyzed. These hazards proved to be so dangerous that many wives of divers asked the Turkish sultan to forbid the use of the standard suit, he agreed and in 1882 the suit was not longer in use. This resulted in the profits of the sponge merchants dropping, and the “skin diving” suit began being used again. Four years later, the suit was returned to use along with the decompression accidents.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the sponge industry suffered hard times in the Aegean Sea area. Many groups of divers moved to other countries to find new oceans for sponge diving. One such group form Dodekanesos settled in Tarpon Springs, Florida. In addition, diving equipment began to be produced in Florida in 1913 by Nicolas Toth.
After WWII, the sponge diving industry almost came to a complete end in the Dodekanesos area. Then, in 1986, the sponges in the Aegean Sea became infected, and the sponges died. The reason for the disease was never known. Now, in 2001, only about 10 to 15 sponge diving ships are working compared to the 400 ships of 1868. Because of the pollution and over-harvesting of sponges, there are hardly any Mediterranean sponges to be found today. The only evidence of the successful sponge industry of the 1800's is found in the Sea World Museum located in Pothia. There are a few workshops that remain that cut and sell sponges found nearby. However, many of the sponges found in the Aegean Sea area for sale have been shipped in from the Caribbean or the Philippines.