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Natural sea sponges history

Sea Sponges throughout history

The Greeks have been using sea sponges both for their personal hygiene and for cleaning their houses since the antiquity. The use of sea sponges is first attested in the 8th century B.C. by the epic poet Homer. In his Iliad, god Hephaestus cleans his face, his hands and his chest with a sea sponge, whereas in the Odyssey, the servants in the palace of Odysseus clean the tables after the meals of the Suitors of Penelope with sponges.

Sea sponges were also used in writing, painting, medicine, pharmaceuticals and army, protecting the soldiers from the friction between the armour and the body during the Roman and the Byzantine period. There is also a reference to the sponges in the Bible, in the New Testament, when a Roman soldier offers Jesus a sponge soaked in vinegar wine at the Crucifixion.

The ancient Greeks enjoyed sea sponges as a treasured and practical tool, as some of their best athletes would use them during the Olympic Games for bathing and for applying olive oil and perfumes on their bodies before competing.Other historic records indicate that the sea sponge held great value for the ancient Egyptians, not only for everyday cleaning, bathing, and cosmetic use, but especially as an important tool for the embalming process, where they would soak a sea sponge in oils and fragrances in order to gently wipe clean the body of the deceased until it was thoroughly perfumed and preserved for the burial process.

After the final end of Venetocracy in Greece (14th-16th century A.D.) the Western crusaders introduced the use of sponges in Central and Western Europe and made Venice a major sponge trading center.

Kalymnos sea sponge diving heritage

Sponge diving is considerd to be “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. For all the above Kalymnos is now called the “Island of Sponge Divers”.

Sponge diving techiniques

Kalymnos has written its own history with for it’s divers. The sea full of secrets, “still carries within the” the famous sponge divers …

Skin Diving (Skandalopetra)

These legendary nude divers who dived to a depth of 30 meters, attached to a Skandalopetra (piece of marble or granite, weighing 8-14 kg, which was tied with a rope on them). This helped them to descend more quickly to the bottom and had a time limit as holding their breath to collect as many sponges they could carry. At the end of the dive they were pulling the rope, so as the men on the boat to pull them up along with Skandalopetra.

Skafandro Suit

The introduction of the Skafandro brought profound changes to the sponge diving industry in Greece generally and more specifically on Kalymnos. The days of the small boats were gone 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. 

This new diving method with the diving suit the diver was wearing a full costume (suit, helmet, bronze chest, shoes and weights chest). Now, they could remain at the bottom much longer, since a manual air pump Piston was sending through a pipe, natural air into the helmet of the diver. The result of this long-term stay in the water was the increased pressure in the diving “passed” into the spinal cord, resulting the change of the gas ratio while ascending , keeping the nervous system more nitrogen than intended.

The use of the standard diving suit brought up serious risks and danger for 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. 

The 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. 

Fernez and Nargiles method

In 1920 a new breathing mechanism adopted, the Fernez method which using small airbag worn back secured to the diver smooth airflow. In the 1970s all were replaced by the modern system of water pipe, whereby the diver again wore a frogman suit and an air compressor cognizance air from the vessel.