Greek captain Antonis Kampourakis has been diving into the depths of the Aegean sea, scouring the seafloor for precious sponges, for over 50 years.
Sponge diving has been practiced for untold centuries on Kampourakis’ native island of Kalymnos, where the practice makes up a vital part of the economy and local identity.
The captain himself, who continued to plunge into the sea in search of sponges until he was 72, embodies the courageous spirit of the sponge divers of Kalymnos.
Even though there were diving suits and oxygen tanks available to him, Kampourakis always preferred to free dive — relying only on his own strong lungs.
Astoundingly, the diver has reached depths of 30 meters (98.4 feet) all while holding his breath.
It is no surprise that when a statue of a sponge diver was made to honor the island’s history and culture, sculptor Sakellaris Koutouzis chose Kampourakis as his model.
The sponge divers of Kalymnos
The brave men who partake in this dangerous hunt must be at the peak level of physical fitness and extremely strong swimmers, as they must dive to incredible depths in the sea, sometimes without oxygen tanks or any similar equipment, in search of the sponges.
Historically, men from Kalymnos dove for sponges in the springtime, using just their lungs, legs, and an extremely heavy marble rock to help them sink quickly in search of their loot.
These sponge divers often stayed out on the open sea for long periods of time, only returning from their dangerous work when the sea became too cold to practice their trade.
It was only until the iconic full-body diving suits, complete with a large helmet, were introduced on the island in the nineteenth century that divers no longer had to rely on their own breath for oxygen.
These suits, however, although designed to be safer for sponge divers, led to many deadly cases of decompression sickness, or “the bends,” which occurs when divers rise up to the surface too quickly, allowing nitrogen in the blood to form bubbles from the rapid change in pressure.
As technology developed throughout the years, and decompression sickness was better understood, divers eventually began to use oxygen tanks, like those worn by scuba divers, in the 1920s.
The sponge business in Greece and the US
The hunt for sponges, despite being not only dangerous, was also extremely lucrative. During the peak of the sponge trade, in the nineteenth through mid-twentieth century, sponges from Kalymnos were sent across Greece, the Mediterranean, and the world.
Records show that these precious goods were sent as far as Russia and throughout the Middle East.
Many Greek immigrants from Kalymnos, and from other islands where the practice was widespread, moved to the US and brought sponge diving with them.
The most widely known example is the iconic city of Tarpon Springs, in Florida, where immigrants from the islands of Kalymnos and Symi began to dive for sponges in the Gulf of Mexico, making it one of the city famous across the world for both its sponges and its distinctly Greek identity.