Tarpon Springs, Florida is one of my most favorite small towns to visit. I have a
fantastic time every visit.
Tarpon Springs, in Pinellas County, Florida, with a series of bayous feeding into the Gulf of Mexico, first attracted attention as a place for winter homes about 1876. Some of the newly arrived visitors spotted tarpons jumping out of the waters and so named the location Tarpon Springs.
The first Greek immigrants arrived during the 1880s, when they were hired to work in the growing sponge harvesting industry. In 1905, John Cocoris introduced the technique of sponge diving to Tarpon Springs. Cocoris recruited Greek sponge divers from the Dodecanese Islands of Greece, in particular Kalymnos, Symi and Halki. By the 1930s, the sponge industry in Tarpon Springs was very productive, generating millions of dollars a year. Today, Tarpon Springs has the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the US.
The 1953 film "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef", depicting sponge diving, takes place and was filmed in Tarpon Springs.
When a red tide algae bloom occurred in 1947, wiping out the sponge fields in that region of the Gulf of Mexico, most of the sponge boats and divers switched to fishing and shrimping for a livelihood. The city then converted most of its sponge-related activities, especially the warehouses where they were sold, into tourist attractions.
The Sponge Docks are nw mostly shops, restaurants, and museums dedicated to the memory of Tarpon Springs' earlier industry. Most sponges sold on the docks are now imports; relatively few sponges are harvested from the area, although attempts have been made in recent years to restart local sponge harvesting. In the late 1980s the sponge industry made a comeback, and in the fall of 2007 a record harvest of sponges by a single boat was made.
The shops along Dodecanese Avenue in the Sponge Docks District of Tarpon Springs are still thriving as both a historic and a current tourist destination. The street winds its way from the bayou towards the Tarpon Springs Aquarium at the far end. Along the way it passes the marina and Sponge Boats docked along the north side of the street and the Historic Sponge Exchange on the south.
There are many restaurants serving traditional Greek cuisine and fresh seafood that dot the street as well as quaint boutiques that sell everything from real sponges to imported goods. The street is narrow and reminiscent of a seaside village in Greece, with delivery trucks parked in the right of way and locals that greet each other in Greek and stop to chat without regard to the traffic.
I have been coming to Tarpon Springs for years. I was stationed in Tampa, a few miles away, back in my early days in the Air Force. With each visit I find something new and exciting about the town. As you walk down the streets, especially near the sponge docks, it is almost like you are in another country.
A few years ago, I was told a close relative of mine, Frankie, had a restaurant in Tarpon Springs back in the 60s. In fact, indications are he was there the same time I was stationed at MacDill AFB in Tampa (only a few miles south) but I did not know it. WOW! I think that would have been amazing to have been able to hang out with him and his wife, Roberta. Frankie and I have this name thing. He is Frankie and I am Frankie D.