The Fearless Kalymnos Sponge Divers

The Life of the Fearless Kalymnos Sponge Divers

The small fishing boat carries the three men out to sea. There is a captain, a crew member, and a third passengerthe naked man preparing for his journey. The tanned leathery skin of the “chosen one” attaches the 15 kilogram skandalopetra (flat stone) to himself. A crew member clenches the harpoon and prods the ocean floor for treasures. Bingo. It looks like a good catch. There’s a motion with a finger signaling it’s time for the nude man to go under.

The waters around Kalymnos are warm, very warm and pleasing as the defenseless man is propelled overboard. The weight bound to the bare-skinned gentleman plummets him quickly to the bottom of the sea. He’s done this before but knows that his lung capacity 30 meters below the sea can only withstand the physical threat three to five minutes maximum.

Sponge from Kalymnos, Greece
Sponge from Kalymnos, Greece

The Risks of Sponge Diving

In the short time the excellent swimmer is underwater; he quickly cuts as many sponges as possible from the ocean bottom and then places a net around them. The diver often pushes himself, staying under as long as possible because this is the only way to make a living. Classroom diving training lessons wards against pushing the limits, though many divers did not heed the warnings.

During the early years, the male Kalymnos sponge divers did so without equipment, called “free diving” holding their breathe underwater as long as possible. Often the divers came up too fast from the deep waters causing decompression sickness (DCS) commonly called “the bends death”. The divers that survived often came to shore with severe foot injuries as their feet became tangled around the boat since they needed to ascend quickly. Despite the risks, the fearless sponge divers of Kalymnos continued their occupation.

Kalymnos, the Sponge Diving Capital

The mention of sponges for bathing dates as long ago as ancient writings of Plato and Homerus. Centuries later through trading, Europeans desire for sponge use increased. Natural sponges have been used for padding for helmets, cleaning, and even contraceptive use.

Aside from citrus fruits, the land on Kalymnos is rather barren so sponge diving was an obvious career choice which brought wealth and social-economic power to the island. Kalymnos was the center of the Greek sponge diving industry until the late 80s. In later years of the Kalymnos sponge diving heyday, proper equipment was used, but over-fishing and disease brought both the sponges and the industry close to extinction.

Journey from Greece to Florida

Today, there are a handful of Kalymnos divers and their families keeping the art of sponge diving and sponge processing alive mainly entertaining and informing Greek tourists.

Due to the decline of the sponge industry in Greece, in 1905 around 500 divers migrated to Tarpon Springs, Florida. Many of those who settled in the town south of St. Petersburg, Florida continued their trade of making diving helmets. Today, Tarpon Springs is the “sponge capital of the world,” alluring visitors to the largest community of Greek Americans in the United States.

The Kalymnians remember the essence of their past in the somber Greek sponge divers dance which is still performed today. Like the sponge, the dancers move slowly yet methodically dancing around the single Kalymnos sponge divers who represents those physical scarred by their fearlessness.


Breakfast at the Acropolis Museum

I’ve enjoyed an early morning breakfast in some of the world’s most beautiful places, from a hot-air balloon-ride above the North African mountains to a table on the Grand Canal in Venice. So far, nothing is as surreal as sitting in the Acropolis Museum with a view of the Acropolis in near reach.

Breakfast at the Acropolis Museum Restaurant
Views from the Acropolis Museum restaurant

Located in the historic area of Makryianni, the museum stands only 300 meters (980 feet) southeast of the Parthenon so you get a sense of interconnection from the important archaeological sites. From the Dionysios Areopagitou pedestrian street, you look down toward the museum as if to prepare you to enter an excavation site—which in fact you do. As you approach the entrance beneath your feet thousands of years of history are revealed under the glass walkways.

When we arrived at 7:50 a.m. there were only two gentlemen and a large group of excited Greek school children waiting to enter. We walked past the kids, towards security; the gentleman greeted us with a hearty Kalimera (hello in Greek). All week I had experienced the immense Greek hospitality, but at 8:00 in the morning was thoroughly impressed with his cheerful mood.

I had wondered if the building designed by architect Bernard Tschumi with Greek architect  Michael Photiadis had retained its opening day glory after Greece’s unfortunate financial crisis. Fortunately the museum is still as striking and elegant as the day it opened in 2009. The sheer size (25,000 square meters) might be intimidating, but the use of glass, marble, and natural light provide an airy feeling as you explore the extensive range of artifacts.

Our museum visit was too short, so consider planning more time to view some of the world’s most treasured artifacts. As I walked through the exhibitions there were museum archaeologists and artists re-creating artifacts on-hand to answer questions as well as hosts, but I was so mesmerized by the collections I didn’t get a chance to do so.

Breakfast at Acropolis Museum Restaurant
Breakfast at Acropolis Museum restaurant

Next stop was breakfast at the Acropolis Museum restaurant where shades of gray and black provide a simple yet refined color scheme. As we were the first to enter the restaurant, we had the choice of sitting inside or outside under the shaded terrace. At any table you’ll see picture-perfect views of the Parthenon and historic hills of Athens.

The Acropolis Museum breakfast card has an adequate choice of Greek breakfast items all of which proudly use Greek products. I ordered the three-egg omelet filled with cheese from Crete and homemade bread. Both of which were delicious and affordable as museum prices go.

Aside from the cheesy omelet, the best part of breakfast at the Acropolis Museum was most definitely the views from the exhibit floors and the restaurant. They are simply incredible especially. Now I can add the Acropolis Museum to some of the world’s most beautiful places to enjoy breakfast.

Who needs breakfast at Tiffany’s when you can have breakfast at the Acropolis Museum!

Aeolus, Zeus, Poseidon, and Ouzo

Day 4 in Greece is not as I had envisioned it. I had imagined waking up on the island of Poros to sunshine, not wind, rain and cloudy skies. I imagined at least getting my feet wet in the gorgeous clear waters of the Saronic Gulf island, but Aeolus, Zeus, and Poseidon, Greek gods of weather had masterminded something else—a trip to an Ouzeri to drink Ouzo. We finished our tea on the balcony overlooking Askeli Bay. Despite the unforgiving weather, the views of the bay and surrounding mountains were outstanding. Especially today since several yachts were lining up for a regatta.

Askeli Bay, Poros, GreeceI put on the lightweight down coat I had purchased the previous day in Athens since I hadn’t properly prepped for travel. What a lifesaver considering the cold weather. My oh my, what activity could save us in these chilly temperatures? How about viewing the parade to mark the Greek national holiday—a celebration of the beginning of World War II? Still trying to figure that out!

The walk into Poros (a Greek island only a 45-minute ferry ride from Athens) is mainly downhill. The curves can be a bit daunting as the occasional car or motor bike drivers hug the road causing us walking-folk slight anxiety as we approached them head on. I felt safer as the seemingly orphaned dogs walked along our side running and barking after the drivers.

Athens dog adoption
Dog in Galatas waiting for Greek mezedes

After 15 minutes we reached the center of Poros to view the festivities—classic pomp and circumstance between the city officials and military representatives, ending with the parade of school children marching down the dockside street to cheers from proud parents, locals, and visitors. It’s simple and uncomplicated, just like Poros.

The best view of the parade was from the Porto Café, directly across where the ferries land. It’s the perfect place to chill watching life slowly pass by as you wait for a cup of coffee or a glass of Greek wine while. We’re not ready for Greek wine just yet, we’re off to an Ouzeri.

In Greece, locals drink Ouzo with their mezedes (Greek appetizers) at an Ouzeri or taverna and boy do they drink a lot of it thanks to a heavenly activity. Around the 14th century monks living in a monastery on Mount Athos started distilling Ouzo. The national drink increasing became more popular and in 2006 the Greek government gained exclusive rights to the name. Therefore, if it’s not made in Greece, it can’t be called Ouzo.

Ouzo, Greece's national drink
Drinking Ouzo in a Greek Ouzerui

As the sound of the ferry boat intensified, so did the stench of its diesel fumes. The boat wobbles to the dock and the captain graciously held out his calloused hands to help the passengers onto stable land.

As the boat continuously rocked back and forth, so did my nerves. Poros to Galatas is just a five-minute ferry ride but the thought of a small fishing boat taking me across waters to the Ouzeri, made me a bit squeamish. You see, I’m not an alcohol drinker, but the thought of visiting an Ouzeri sounded intriguing.

Before boarding, I looked disappointingly up at the dramatic grey skies and the ferry boat driver says “Tomorrow the sun will shine.” I answer, “Today I will drink Ouzo.” He replies, “Then today the sun will shine.”

Poros, Greece
View of Poros, Greece

On this national holiday, Galatas’ waterfront restaurants and cafes were pretty dead, but we continued to walk through town until we reached the Ouzeri. I figured we were close because the seemingly uninhabited town became alive with laughter, hooting, and hollering. Could those sounds be due to a Greek soccer match playing on television? Perhaps the emotions from Ouzo consumption were coming out of the local town folk? It was in fact both.

We placed our order and in no time a small bottle of clear liquid arrives along with a bowl of ice cubes, glasses, and water. I felt cheated receiving a tiny bottle, but became alarmed as the neighbor table of eight adults consumed one tiny bottle amongst them. Oh no, I think we’re in for trouble.

Could there be a science to drinking Ouzo aside from taking your time and consuming lots of mezedes? Well yes, because when mixing Ouzo with water it turns opaque and whitish. That’s because the anise oil dissolves and becomes invisible when mixed with a conventional alcohol content, but as soon as the alcohol content is reduced, the essential oils transform into white crystals, which you can’t see through. Bet you didn’t learn that is science class.

Ouzo and Greek Mezedes
Ouzo and Greek mezedes

Seated amongst the locals, we slowly sipped Greece’s national drink which is made from a precise combination of pressed grapes and herbs and berries including aniseed, licorice, mint, wintergreen, fennel and hazelnut. Ouzo tastes medicinal and familiar. I think my mom gave me cough medicine that tasted like Ouzo. Wait, maybe it was Ouzo!

As the milky-colored drink tantalized our taste buds, so did the array of mezedes we ordered. Yummy anchovy fritters (Gavrokeftedes), pickled octopus (Htapodi xidato), fried squid (Kalamaria tiganita), oregano fries, and my all-time favorite fried cheese (Saganaki) surronded our tiny bottle of Ouzo.

With a 45% alcohol content Ouzo is powerful but not as powerful as the views of Poros from Galatas. Your eyes are drawn to the towering historic clock, the colorful blend of neo-classical homes, tavernas, and yachts. As my eyes drifted and the skies brightened, I think saw Aeolus, Zeus, and Poseidon or was the Ouzo speaking to me?

Today I drank Ouzo, and indeed the sun did shine.