Elizabeth, a Licensed Massage Therapist, has a Master's in Zoology from North Carolina State, one in GIS from Florida State University, and a Bachelor's in Biology from Eastern Michigan University. She has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.
What are Sponges?
Washing your dishes in your sink probably isn't a big deal to you. Dishes get dirty, you clean them, and then you move on with your life. But stop to think for a minute about all of the important modern advances that allow us to take this simple task for granted. Clean, hot water pumped right into our homes; dish soap in just about any scent you can imagine; and perhaps most importantly, a sponge that soaks up that water and soap and cleans your dishes with minimal effort.
Today, the sponges you buy at the store are likely made from synthetic materials and produced in a factory. But natural sponges are animals that come from the sea and have been used for a long time for the same purposes, among others. Some people think that sponges, and other immobile organisms like corals, that live on the bottom of the sea floor are plants. But these primitive invertebrates truly belong to the animal kingdom.
History of Sponging
Sponges have been harvested for many centuries. Ancient Greeks and Romans used sponges for bathing and cosmetic purposes, as well as for embalming bodies before burial. Sponge diving was even a sport of the Olympics of the Ancient Greeks!
Early Sponge Harvesting
In the late 1800s, the Greeks began sponge diving using suits with air hoses attached that allowed them to dive to greater depths. In the United States, the sponging industry began somewhat by accident in the early 1800s in Key West, Florida. Sponges would wash up on shore after storms, and turtle fishermen were accidentally snagging them in their fishing nets. This prompted folks to begin intentionally harvesting sponges.
The early sponge harvesters were called hookers because they used a pronged rake to hook the sponges and bring them up to the boat from shallow waters. For a while sponges were only harvested and distributed locally, but by the 1900s sponging was big business in the U.S., and Tarpon Springs, Florida had become the new 'capital' in the sponge harvesting industry.
Changes to the Industry
This was in no small part due to two men named John Corcosis and John Cheyney. Corcosis came to the U.S. from Greece, and specifically to Florida in 1895 to work in the sponge industry. He met John Cheyney, who hired him and asked him to make the industry more efficient. Corcosis brought hundreds of Greek divers to Florida, and in 1905 introduced the mechanized sponge fishing boat.
Early sponge diving was very modest because divers would dive into the water holding on to a weight to take them to the bottom, cut off a sponge, and then swim back up to the surface. They had to hold their breath the entire time, which limited both the depth they could go to and the amount of time they could stay under water.
But the Greek divers that came to Florida brought with them new diving methods and technologies. Most importantly, the dive suit with an air hose connected to allow divers to breathe underwater. This meant that divers could stay down longer, go to deeper depths, and search for sponges underwater instead of trying to see them from the boat.
The sponge industry remained strong until the 1940s. During this time, blight, an infection caused by a fungus or other pathogenic organism, decimated the sponge populations. It was also during this time that artificial sponges were first introduced. Both the sponge beds and the sponging industry took a significant hit. It took until the 1970s, but the sponge beds eventually recovered. The industry also recovered, and in the 1980s even more sponge beds were discovered for harvesting.
Natural sponges are still harvested, sold, and used today, though with more of a focus on sustainability than before. Sponges are a renewable resource in that they can regrow when a piece is taken off. But when too much is taken off it reduces the chance that the sponge can survive. Today instead of hooking, which affords sponges a meager 41% chance of survival, sponge harvesters are required to cut sponges, intentionally leaving enough behind for the sponge to regenerate. Cutting increases a sponge's chance of survival to 71%! This minor change will leave a major impact on the sustainability of the sponge industry.
Uses of Sponges
You may only use your dish sponge to wash your dishes, but natural sponges have a surprisingly wide variety of uses. They are of course used for personal cleaning, bathing, and general hygiene, but also for cleaning your house, car, or just about anything else. They are also useful for painting and other types of art. In fact, some people consider sponges themselves to be the art and use them as décor in their houses.
Some people prefer sea sponges because they last longer and don't retain odors. There are also different kinds of sponges, coming in different sizes and textures. But don't be fooled by the loofah, which is a sponge imposter! While often used for the same hygiene purposes, loofahs are plants and therefore not even closely related to the sea sponge.
Sponges also offer some interesting applications to the medical world. Sponges are being researched and used for the treatment of viruses, leukemia, cancer, and even HIV. I wouldn't count on your sponge at home to do that!
Sea sponges have been harvested for centuries. They are used for numerous things, such as cleaning, bathing, personal hygiene, art, décor, and even disease treatment. Though Greek divers had been harvesting sponges for some time, the industry didn't really begin in the U.S. until the early 1800s. Early sponge harvesting was fairly limited, as divers had to hold their breath underwater while collecting sponges, and hookers could only hook sponges from boats in relatively shallow water.
The industry, which was initially focused in Key West, Florida and later in Tarpon Springs, was drastically changed by John Cheyney and John Corcosis when they joined forces in 1895. In 1905, Corcosis introduced the first mechanized sponge fishing boat and brought in hundreds of Greek divers. With these divers came their efficient sponge harvesting techniques and technologies. Most importantly, a dive suit that supplied air to the diver underwater.
The sponging industry took a hit in the 1940s with a blight that nearly wiped out the sponges. It was at this same time that artificial sponges were introduced. Both the sponges and the industry recovered, and are still going today.
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