Dive into Greek culture on the Florida coast? Opa!

08/01/2014 12:00 AM

08/02/2014 5:54 PM

First we saw a few bubbles. Then so many that the water seemed to boil. Next appeared a bulbous brass helmet, big as a beach ball, trailing a long rubber hose. A human hand clasped the side of the wooden boat. A minute later, the diver had climbed back aboard the St. Nicholas VII. Clad in traditional early-20th-century diving getup, he appeared to have stepped directly from a Jules Verne novel.

Unlike fictional underwater adventurers, this one was a real man demonstrating to us tourists the old-fashioned and once highly dangerous work of sponge harvesting. Methods of gathering these profitable porous sea critters may be safer today, but a recent visit to Tarpon Springs revealed that much about this Gulf Coast community remains curiously unchanged.

My pal Bill and I spent a day last month in the seaside town, less than an hour’s drive from my home in Tampa. About a mile away from downtown Tarpon Springs, the overwhelming number of Greek words on signs confirmed that we were headed the right way. Tarpon Springs boasts the highest percentage of Greek Americans in the country.

The best — and most entertaining — source of local lore we found was George Billiris, a veteran sponge diver whose aquanaut grandfather had immigrated in 1904. In an air-conditioned dockside shack where the 87-year-old runs a sponge auction outfit and diving exhibition boat tours, he told us how an abundance of high-quality sponges along Florida’s Gulf Coast originally attracted many Greeks, among the best sponge divers in the Mediterranean.

In its heyday, he said, Tarpon Springs was the world capital of the sponge industry, home to several hundred divers working aboard some 180 boats. Hollywood glamorized the romance and danger of sponge diving in movies, but a seaborne midcentury blight all but destroyed the industry. Yet despite various ups and downs over the decades, sponge harvesting continues here.

Global demand for natural sponges — regarded as superior to synthetic ones — remains high, though finding folks willing to perform the arduous work of gathering them from the sea floor is becoming harder. Still, the sponge industry continues to nourish tourism.

“The sponge industry is our Mickey Mouse,” Billiris said with a laugh.

Inspired, Bill and I took the half-hour sponge diving boat tour with St. Nicholas Boat Line, followed by lunch at Mykonos, one of the town’s several dozen Greek restaurants.

On the recommendation of our server, I had the signature grouper Mykonos, roasted fresh fish smothered in tomatoes, onions and crumbled feta cheese, along with a glass of zesty white Greek wine. Bill went with a more traditional papoutsaki, baked eggplant stuffed with meat and topped with béchamel sauce. We ended with a duo of high-octane Greek coffees, thick as sludge.

At a neighboring table, diners gleefully shouted “Opa!” as their server arrived with a platter of saganaki, a flaming cheese appetizer. At night, Mykonos, like many local restaurants, becomes the scene of much Greek dancing and singing.

Strolling through town, we passed bakeries and dozens of souvenir shops, each similarly stocked with kitschy model diving helmets, classic Greek statuettes and piles of ubiquitous tan-colored sponges of all sizes and shapes. Brightly painted boats line the sponge docks.

A few minutes’ drive south on Hope Street, we visited St. Michael Shrine, prayers at which are said to be responsible for a number of miraculous cures. The sole visitors to this pint-size Greek Orthodox Church, we sneaked a look inside a small cavelike room outside where dozens of votive candles burned.

On the way home, Bill and I vowed to come back soon. We had to experience the town’s nightlife. And, maybe just as important, finally taste that flaming cheese dish.

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