The kalymnians became world famous
sponge divers during the last centuries
History and Tradition of Sponge Diving in Kalymnos
Dodecanesse: The small Dodecanesse island of
Kalymnos in the Aegean Sea is renowned as the center
of the Greek sponge diving industry, which has
flourished on the island since the ancient times.
The history of sponge diving in Greece dates back to
antiquity. The sponge and its usage is mentioned in
the Homeric epics of Iliad and Odyssey, as well as
in the writings of the philosopher Aristotle. The
philosopher Plato also refers to sponge as an
article that was commonly used in bathing, mostly by
the rich people. Sponge diving has been called "the
oldest profession" on the island of Kalymnos.
The sponge diving industry contributed immensely
to the economic and social development of the island
a few decades ago. For centuries, Kalymnos remained
the center of sponge diving industry in Greece, even
though sponge diving was also an important source of
revenue for several other Greek islands of the
Mediterranean.The first divers of Kalymnos gathered
their sponges from the bottom of the sea using the
"skin diving" technique. In other words, they dived
into the sea naked, carrying a "skandalopetra" (flat
stone weighing about 15 kilograms) in order to sink
to the sea floor quickly. The mates of the divers in
the boat above would already have ensured the
presence of sponges on the sea floor with the help
of a glass-bottomed cylindrical tool. The skilled
divers would dive up to 30 meters down and stay
there three to five minutes gathering the sponges
with a special net.
Although it was a hard,
dangerous and manual technique, the skin diving
method produced an abundance of sponges and brought
enormous wealth to the island of Kalymnos. During
the middle of the 19th century, the merchants of the
island made immense profits from the trade and
export of sponges and became highly influential
members of society in Kalymnos.
booming business in sponges got a further boost
after 1865 with the introduction of the standard
diving suit, the "skafandro", as the Greeks called
it. The skafandro enabled the previously naked
divers to gather larger quantities of sponges at
greater depths (up to 70 meters), staying down for
longer periods than was previously possible.
introduction of the Skafandro brought profound
changes to the sponge diving industry in Greece
generally and more specifically on Kalymnos. Gone
were the days of the small boats in which the naked
divers of Kalymnos ventured out to the sea. Now it
was the turn of large fleets consisting of numerous
ships to mine for sponges on a large scale.
According to Faith Warn, a British journalist and
former resident of Kalymnos, the vast sponge diving
fleet included 300 ships with 6 to 15 divers for
each ship, another 70 ships that used harpoons to
harvest sponges and 70 trawlers. The ships were
launched from the island of Kalymnos to scour the
Aegean and the Mediterranean, often staying at sea
for as long as 6 months and visiting places as far
away as Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya and Tunis.
However, the use of the standard diving suit
brought in its wake serious risk and danger to the
divers who had to make several dives a day at
greater depths without any decompression pauses.
Such grueling conditions caused great damage to the
health of the divers, many of them getting paralyzed
and some of them even dying of decompression
sickness. According to Warn, the new diving method
caused the death of around 10,000 divers between
1886 and 1910; another 20,000 divers were
permanently disabled that same period.
dangers of the new sponge diving method had a deep
impact upon the families and society of Kalymnos.
Every household on the island could count at least
one family member who had either died or been
paralyzed during the sponge diving season. The
situation became so dire at the end of the 19th
century that the Turkish sultan, who then ruled all
Dodecanese islands, banned the use of the Skafandro
at the request of the suffering women of Kalymnos.
However, the ban was short-lived as the
profits of the sponge diving industry plunged
causing serious economic concern. The Skafandro
returned after a few years, bringing in further
deaths and disabilities due to decompression-related
accidents. The benefits though also grew up.
Commerce flourished and merchants made immense
fortunes. The common people also benefited as free
healthcare and education was made available to
The two World Wars of the 20th
century seriously disrupted the sponge diving
industry of the island which came to an almost total
end after the Second World War. Many of the skilled
sponge divers resettled in various parts of the
world, such as five hundred divers from the
Dodecanese who found a new home in the USA. Many
divers also found opportunities in Australia's pearl
industry after the Australians refused to work with
Japanese pearl divers due to the bitterness caused
by the Second World War.
The 1980s tolled
the death knell for the Greek sponge diving industry
when most of the sponges in the eastern
Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea were found to be
infected by pollution. The sponge diving fleet was
reduced to four, from a previous high of about 30.
Now all that remains on Kalymnos of the
once-thriving sponge industry is several workshops
in Pothia, selling sponges to tourists as well as a
nautical museum exhibiting articles relating to the
once flourishing sponge diving.