Someplace so familiar
Traveling halfway around the world, this sponge diver found his home in Tarpon Springs — a vibrant seaside outpost of his native Greece.
By Janet Scherberger
It’s a breezy, clear-blue-sky early afternoon in Tarpon Springs and Anastasio “Taso” Karistinos is on his sponge boat, stringing up a gray tarp to protect against the sun.
“I don’t need to get more tan,” he says with a broad grin, his white teeth flashing brightly against his golden brown skin.
Karistinos has been working on the Tarpon Springs sponge docks since he moved to this little Greek community nearly 50 years ago, drawn by the water and the people who reminded him of his neighbors in Greece, where he grew up. He takes his boat, the Anastasi, out several times a year with a one- or twomember crew to dive for sponges.
Much of his bounty ends up in the gift shops of Tarpon Springs, and eventually in the homes of the tourists who flock to this Pinellas County town to stroll along its Anclote River waterfront and sample fresh seafood and authentic Greek fare.
Tarpon Springs from its very beginning has been a place that revolves around the water, from Northerners who built Victorian mansions along its bayous in the late 1880s, to Greek sponge divers who arrived after the turn of the century, tourists snapping pictures of nets hanging heavy with sponges, and the Greek Orthodox religious leaders who gather each January 6 for the diving of the cross that marks the annual Epiphany ritual celebrating the baptism of Jesus.
On this day, Karistinos, who continues to earn a living as a sponge diver, is trimming sponges rendered imperfect by crabs into smaller pieces that painters and potters might use for their craft.
“There are 1,000 different purposes for sponges,” says Karistinos.
Karistinos grew up on the Greek island of Euboea, one of 16 children born to his mother and 13 who survived to adulthood. The family lived on the edge of the mountains and in full view of the water.
“You either ended up a hillbilly or a fisherman,” he says. “I became a fisherman. I was one of the lucky ones.”
He was so young when he took to the water he doesn’t remember learning how to swim, and he assumed everyone had that skill. He received his first spear gun at the age of 10, using it to catch fish for family meals, and some for sale. He could hold his breath for three minutes.
“You become one with the water. You always respect it, but you don’t have to fear it.”
He immigrated to the United States when he was 18, living for a year in New York, where he worked in restaurants mopping floors, making salads and washing dishes. He tried his hand at painting bridges.
But the water called.
On a trip to Florida intended as a pitstop on the way to California, he happened upon Tarpon Springs, and the Greekfishing-village feel of it anchored him. He never left.
He takes his boat out in search of sponges a few times a year for two- to four-week stretches. With weights over his shoulders and cleats on his feet, he walks the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico for up to six hours, collecting sponges in a net.
When asked what it’s like under water, he struggles to find the words.
“It’s like trying to explain colors to the color blind,” he says.
It’s otherworldly, beautiful and dangerous, he says.
“I spend so much time in the water and I see what other people don’t see. If you walk for miles and miles and miles under water, it magnetizes you.”
He has looked snapper and dolphin in the eye and carved his initials on the shells of giant turtles. He has been face-to-face with a grouper and heard the click, click, click of clam shells snapping open and shut. He knows this underwater terrain so well he swears you could drop him anywhere from Key West to Pensacola and within five minutes he could tell you what part of the state he’s in.
He has experienced tense moments.
“I’ve had some real close encounters,” he says. “One time like an idiot I killed a flounder and I stuck it inside my boot and the tail was sticking out. I see a nurse shark swimming around. Usually the nurse sharks look for some place to hide behind the rocks somewhere. … This one went that way, came back this way and then I saw him come straight to my leg. I had enough time to grab the tail of the fish, pull it out, she grabbed it. Whoosh.”
Karistinos has also enjoyed celebrity of sorts, traveling to New York City with the Pinellas County tourism agency to help market the exotic and sunny Tarpon Springs to northerners weary of winter. To tell the story of sponge divers, he donned an old-school rubberized sponge diver suit with a big round helmet. (These days, the divers just carry air tanks and wear masks.)
With a mix of pride and amusement, he recalls being treated like a rock star on the trip to New York, invited to indulge in minibar snacks without cost and met at the hotel door by a limousine driver holding a sign with his name on it when it was time to head to the airport for the flight home.
Tina Bucuvalas, a folklorist, explored Tarpon Springs culture in the documentary film Dancing as One: The Greek Community of Tarpon Springs, funded in part by a $5,000 grant from Florida Humanities and available at the Tarpon Springs Public Library.
Sponge-diving, she says, is just one aspect of water that’s central to life in Tarpon Springs.
“Historically, many people there made their livings from the water and that’s still true in many ways whether it’s directly through commercial fishing or sponging, as distributors of those things or through recreational activities such as kayaking or boat rides that are offered to tourists,” she says.
Bucuvalas moved to Tarpon Springs in 1986, and like Karistinos, was drawn by the water. She was certified as a diver at 16, and has always been an avid swimmer. “I’ve chosen as far as I can to live near the water. It does have a spiritual and personal dimension for promoting peace and well-being,” she says.
She lives in a neighborhood known as “Greek Town,” which is listed on the National District of Historic Places for its Greek heritage and maritime history.
Human beings first discovered Tarpon Springs more than 5,000 years ago, when Indigenous people lived on the banks of the Anclote River, sustained in part by fishing. The first white settlers arrived in 1876, building cabins near Spring Bayou, named for the freshwater spring that feeds it. A few years later, Florida real estate developer Hamilton Disston saved Florida from bankruptcy by buying four million acres that included Tarpon Springs, and recruited Anson Safford, the former governor of the territory of Arizona, to sell tracts of land around the areas’s river, bayous and springs to wealthy northerners seeking escape from harsh winters.
The original Victorian homes still rise majestic and ornate around Spring Bayou, a reminder of a time when the healing waters made this a winter resort town and the annual Water Carnival attracted hundreds to view elaborately decorated boats and take in performances on floating stages.
The city was incorporated in 1887, with a population of 52.
In 1905, a few Greek immigrants arrived and started diving for sponges, eschewing the old hooking method of harvesting sponges and using rubberized diving suits, copper helmets and pumped-in air to go deeper into the water and come up with better quality sponges than those found in shallow water. In just a few years, the Greek population skyrocketed, as hundreds of sponge divers sought their fortunes in Tarpon Springs, driven away from their homeland by the decimation of the sponge industry there due to overfishing, disease and war.
“This was a safe haven for their occupation,” Buculavas says. “People were able to conduct their lives whole fabric pretty much the way they were able to in Greece.”
In the 1920s, when the concept of tourism took off in the United States, Tarpon Springs started marketing itself as “The Venice of the South,” and visitors from around the world helped fuel the economy, attracted by the fresh seafood, sponge exhibits, and the Greek culture.
The St. Nicholas Boat Line, established by Captain Michael Billiris in 1939 for sponge diving and converted to a tour operation in 1945, still offers visitors to Tarpon Springs an up-close experience of the sponge diving industry, and is one of Florida’s oldest attractions.
While the sponge industry isn’t as robust as it used to be, Karistinos carries the torch passed on personally from the late John “The Greek” Maillis, considered one of the greatest sponge divers of his time. And Karistinos’s boat is one of the last traditional Greek-style sponge boats at the Tarpon Springs docks.
“At one time there were at least 200 Greek-style spongefishing boats, called achtermas, in Tarpon Springs,” Buculavas says. “You can see the old pictures from those times and there would be dozens and dozens docked down there. Karistinos’s boat was made by Goerge Saroukos who himself was the last Greek boat builder in Tarpon Springs.”
Today along the sponge docks, Tarpon Springs’ rich water infused past and present are on full display. Greek restaurants still lure hungry visitors with authentic dishes like spanakopita, moussaka, grilled octopus and baklava. At one end of the half-mile stretch of waterfront, Rusty Bellies seafood sells freshcaught snapper, grouper, grunts and mullet and serves it cooked in its restaurant. At the other end, is a kayak launch. In between is all manner of gift shops and boats and dining options.
Karistinos’s boat is usually anchored across the street from the legendary Mykonos restaurant, and you’ll often find Karistinos there, ready to demonstrate sponge-trimming, flash a smile for a photograph, and share stories of his adventure-filled hours immersed in the beauty and wonder of the water.
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