Authentic Tarpon Springs: Sponge Capital of the World

Tarpon Springs lies on the Anclote River along Florida’s Gulf Coast about 30 miles northwest of Tampa. Known as the “Sponge Capital of the World,” this is an area where Greek immigrants settled during the early 1900s and built a thriving industry harvesting, processing, and selling the natural sponges that were abundant in local waters. The town built around the industry was once known as the “Venice of the South.”

Narrow streets, whitewashed buildings, Greek food, culture, and traditions are on display, especially at the waterfront sponge docks where boats depart for sponge diving exhibitions, fishing trips, and eco-tours. Charming restaurants, shops, markets, and pastry shops serve up delicious Greek food and ambiance. The Tarpon Springs High School is home to the “spongers” and Jimmy’s Pizza specializes in Spinach & Feta pizza.


Sponge diver prepares to make a dive 


A tourist destination for decades, drawing visitors with its Mediterranean village charm, Tarpon Springs does have a “touristy feel.” But this community is much more than that. It is an authentic place with a fascinating history of people who thrived on the area’s plentiful resources – from indigenous people thousands of years ago, to Carolina settlers, to the wave of Greek immigrants who came for the sponge industry, bringing their culture to a still-emerging state. Now we can enjoy this rich history with a large serving of delicious food, an “old world” vibe, and deep cultural pride.


Tarpon Springs thrives with authentic Greek culture 


The First to Arrive


More than 5,000 years ago the earliest inhabitants settled this rich Florida environment near the mouth of the Anclote River. Plentiful seafood from the Gulf of Mexico and wild game from the pinewood forests offered an ideal setting for the Timucuans, an indigenous tribe who have left behind a legacy of pottery, weapons, and skeletal remains buried in shell mounds known as middens, where archeologists have uncovered their fascinating past. (The Safford Mound is the most notable one where more than 600 skeletons were excavated. Artifacts from this mound can be seen in the Tarpon Springs Heritage Museum.)

Much later in 1876, South Carolinians A.W. Ormond and his daughter, Mary arrived in the area. Mary named the community Tarpon Springs as she observed the large silver Tarpon rolling on the surface in the Spring Bayou where their home was built.


Craig Park, Spring Bayou


And speaking of Spring Bayou, this spring-fed waterway known for its “healing waters” became the first attraction for Tarpon Springs’ tourists. Along this “Golden Crescent,” as it was also known, for its crescent-shaped waterways, wealthy visitors, actors, and artists came to winter here, living in gracious old Victorian homes on old red brick streets.


Tarpon Springs Victorian homes 


So where does the Greek influence begin?

It starts in 1886 when Philadelphia capitalist John King Cheyney came to Tarpon Springs to manage his family business interests. Cheyney was also in search of new business ventures and while touring the state observed the vibrant sponge industry of Key West, where local Cubans and Bahamians raked in sponges from small boats. Cheyney learned that Florida’s Gulf waters were abundant with sponges found by fishermen who discovered the rich beds after snagging their nets hunting for turtles. Once he set his mind on the industry’s potential, he formed the Anclote and Rock Island Springs Sponge Company buying and selling sponges.


Tarpon Spring sponges


He then met a Greek sponge buyer by the name of John Cocoris who convinced Cheyney that the current method of hooking sponges, using a long pole, off the side of the boat could be run more efficiently. Cocoris knew that Greek divers using mechanized equipment and sponge fishing boats could save time and money and convinced Cheyney to try the venture. As the new methods were introduced word spread to Cocoris’s homeland, the Greek Dodecanese Islands, and in 1905 a flow of experienced Greek sponge divers began to migrate to Tarpon Springs, and they brought their families. Arriving at Tarpon Springs, they worked the sponge business as divers and crew, also creating local businesses to begin a new chapter in Florida’s cultural heritage – shifting the center of the sponge industry to Tarpon Springs.


Tarpon Springs sponge docks


By the mid-1930s there were 200 sponge boats based in Tarpon Springs working the Gulf of Mexico, from as far north as Apalachicola, all the way south to Key West. The sponge business was yielding over $3 million dollars a year until a sponge blight in the 1940s decimated the industry. Today, the sponges have rebounded and Tarpon Springs continues to be the world’s largest natural sponge producing industry supplying 70% of the natural sponges.


Tarpon Springs “vase” sponges


The Sponge Docks


For most visitors, the heart of Tarpon Springs resides at the famous Sponge Docks. Along with the Anclote River sponge boats, fishing boats, and businesses lend a quaint atmosphere to this charming waterfront district. Across the street, on Dodecanese Boulevard and the side streets, you’ll find restaurants, curio shops, and bakeries. You’ll hear Greeks speak their native tongue while encouraging you to sample their restaurants or join a cruise on one of the sponge boat trips or trips to Anclote Key, the nearby barrier island with a historic lighthouse. The historic Sponge Exchange is the location where the sponges were once bought and sold in a huge marketplace and is now a plaza with restaurants and shops.

While there, enjoy a few excursions that will bring out the Greek “Opaaaa!” in you.


Tarpon Springs sponge boat


St. Nicholas Sponge Diving Trip


If you even have a mild interest in how the sponge divers dove for sponges using antiquated heavy gear (think 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), a short 30-minute trip will satisfy your curiosity. Board a sponge boat (a replica, but very authentic) known as St. Nicholas with a classic Mediterranean design and cruise down the Anclote River. You’ll be amazed as the diver dons 172 pounds of traditional diving gear including a helmet, breastplate, boots, and body weights, plunging over the side of the boat connected to an air hose while gathering sponges.

About sponges:

The sponge is an aquatic invertebrate with a soft porous body. There are as many as 18 species of sponges with the wool sponge being the most desired because it is soft and durable, and not susceptible to odors or mildew. The yellow sponge is less durable, lasting a year while the wire sponge is abrasive and often used for manufacturing. The bay sponge is known as the flowerpot sponge and will actually grow a plant or seed.


Anclote Key Boat Trip with Sponge-O-Rama


Anclote Key Boat Trip


Consider the Sponge-O-Rama cruise on a pontoon boat to the nearby Anclote Key Preserve State Park, a 30-minute ride out to one of Florida’s most stunning barrier islands. The cruise can be accessed at the sponge docks. Pack a lunch and enjoy a trip out to the island’s pristine white sandy beaches, surrounded by aquamarine water under deep blue skies. If you are fascinated with shells, you’ll love the abundance of brightly colored specimens that the island is known for and you’ll want to take your specimens home.


Anclote Key is known for its beauty and shells


Wade in the shallow water and notice the wide diversity of bird species. If you have the time, hike to the Anclote Key’s historic 1887 lighthouse that frames a picture-perfect background. And you just might get lucky if a family of dolphins escorts you on your return trip, surfing the boat wake while jumping in and out of the waves. One more note, on your return, stop at the Spongeorama museum that displays authentic and historical sponge industry exhibits.


Old packinghouse in Greek Town 


Greek Village


Consider driving through Greek Village not far from the Sponge Docks. Here, the Greek immigrants built small, simple homes in the northwest section of town near the Anclote River. Wood frame homes of the original sponge divers are interspersed with commercial buildings and sponge packinghouses where sponges were processed by cleaning, trimming, sorting, bleaching, drying, and packing.


St. Michael’s Shrine


St. Michael’s Shrine


Tucked in a quiet neighborhood this quiet chapel looks like it belongs on a Greek isle. The Chapel was built on (113) Hope Street by a Greek family in gratitude for their son’s miraculous recovery from near death. The shrine is legendary in local Greek history through the miracles of Saint Michael.


Historical Safford House


1883 Safford House Museum


Anson P.K. Safford was one of Tarpon Springs’ early developers. He lived in the house with his wife and three children eventually adding a second floor. Constructed of virgin pine, the house served as a boarding home. It was later restored and is now open to the public on select days.


Ride a bike or walk downtown Tarpon Springs


Downtown Historic Tarpon Springs


Consider a walk or bike ride through the Tarpon Springs downtown to enjoy the vintage antique shops, art galleries, cafes, and specialty shops. Be sure to stop into Faklis Department Store, one of the oldest downtown businesses in Tarpon Springs, specializing in shoe repair and clothing. Across the street is the 1909 Train Depot, home to a collection of local memorabilia. Around the corner is the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center, built in 1915 as City Hall. It is filled with local history and exhibits.


Tarpon Springs Epiphany Celebration (Spongorama Museum)


Then, on the walking tour, head to Craig Park on Spring Bayou, the location for a famous Greek Epiphany celebration. January 6th marks the Epiphany with festivities representing the Baptism of Christ in the Greek Orthodox religion. The day starts with the Blessing of the Fleet, followed by an event where young men 18 and under dive for a cross in the cold water. The young man who comes up with the cross is assured a blessed year.


St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral


St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral


Another stop on your walking tour should be one of the most celebrated Greek churches in the United States, the majestic 1943 St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral featuring Byzantine architecture, a central dome, rich carvings, Greek marble, and colorful stained glass windows. Especially don’t miss the weeping Icon of St. Nicholas.


Enjoy Greek food while in Tarpon Springs (Spanokopita)


Where to Eat Greek Food


Greek food is of course delicious, flavorful, and often served family-style. Families order platters and share. Some Greeks insist the best places to eat in Tarpon Springs “depends on what you want to eat.” But there are favorites you might want to try on your Tarpon Springs food adventure. All are located in the sponge dock area:

Mama’s is a local favorite. Local Greek favorites are the Charbroiled or Pickled Octopus; Lamb Shank in tomato sauce served over pasta; Smarides (pan-fried fish smelts) Spanokopita (Spinach Pie); Horiatiki Salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, anchovies, and feta); and a dessert serving of the Galaktoboureko, the Greek Custard Pie chased with Greek Coffee.

Mykonos is known for its traditional and classic Greek food. Try the Mykoniatiko or Chargrilled Kalamaria (calamari); the Avgolemono Soup, or Greek chicken soup with lemon; Psari Tis Oras, a fresh charbroiled or pan-fried whole fish of the day, the Lamb Shank with fresh tomato sauce. But don’t miss the classic Gyro (pronounced yeero) filled with strips of lamb and beef topped with tomato, onion, and tzatziki sauce wrapped in pita bread.

Hellas – this restaurant has more of a touristy vibe, but try ordering family style starting with appetizers of the Saganaki or imported flamed cheese; add the Taramosalata or Greek caviar with pita bread; and the Broiled Octopus. Follow that with the Fresh Whole Fish of the Day, the Lamb Shank, and the Horta, or greens, and the Horiatiki Salad. Finish off the meal with Baklava, the Greek pasty, and Greek Coffee.


 Rusty Bellies is known for its fresh seafood


For seafood, try Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill at the end of Dodecanese Blvd. Also, enjoy the fishing boats docked on the Anclote River.

Meanwhile, speaking of Athens Street, this is where you’ll find authentic Greek everything – including Agora Greek Market for specialty Greek food items and the National Bakery for locally made bread and pastries.


Tour Guide MichaelJohn Targakis


See Tarpon Springs with a Native Guide


For an authentic tour of Tarpon Springs – go with Native Tours conducted by MichaelJohn Targakis, a local native. Get your “Opa” on and enjoy the insider’s personalized tour from someone who knows the area, traditions, and stories through a 45- minute walking tour. MichaelJohn is a dynamic storyteller who also conducts all-inclusive day trips for small and large groups, associations, schools, and classes.


The Tarpon Springs 1910 Inn


For Lodging


Lastly, for lodging, consider staying at the 1910 Inn Bed & Breakfast located near Spring Bayou and on the Tarpon Springs Historic Registry. named Best Travel Blog at the Florida Sunshine Awards. 
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