Tarpon Springs is a city on the Gulf Coast of Florida, known for its sponges. Greek sponge divers started arriving in Tarpon Springs in the early 1900s, but In 1947, the sponge fields were wiped out by a red tide algae bloom. The Florida sponge industry rebounded in the '80s when a disease hit Mediterranean sponge fields, increasing the demand for Florida sponges and there's still a small, active sponge industry in Tarpon Springs.
Tarpon Springs, population of around 20,000, has the highest concentration of Greek Americans of any city in the country. The town seems built for tourists, and it's made up mostly of restaurants, bakeries and souvenir shops. The two largest shops are The Sponge Factory and Spongeorama, the latter of which dubiously claims to have the world's largest collection of sponges.
Both shops show a different short, educational sponge diving movie and we watched both—never turn down a free movie about the history of sponges. The Sponge Factory has a better selection of sponges overall, but Spongeorama's vintage movie is definitely better. Both movies contain "secret" discount codes, although I don't know if it was worth saving 10% on the $4 finger sponge that I bought to suffer the indignity of awkwardly telling the clerk that I was a "sponge expert."
The harvesting of sponges is actually pretty brutal to watch—they hack them free from the sea floor with a giant hook—but the leftover fragments can regenerate. It's hard to reconcile the fact that the squishy, porous sponge was once a living creature, but what you think of as a natural sea sponge is in fact just a soft, fibrous skeleton. Over-fishing almost brought the animal to extinction in the mid 1900s, but today a lot of the sponge-like products are made synthetically.
The variety of sponges on display in Tarpon Springs is amazing. They come in all shapes, sizes, colors and density and have been used by humans for centuries. Some sponges even have medicinal purposes and have anti-cancer, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. I love places like this that are built around hyper-specific themes, like Sleepy Hollow or Roswell, Sponges are everywhere you look—on boats and buildings and bikes—and I almost started to believe that I was a sponge expert after spending just a few hours in Tarpon Springs.