For centuries the tiny island of Kalymnos, in the Aegean Sea, has been known as the “Sponge-divers’ island.” Since ancient times, natural sponges have represented the main source of income for Kalymnian families, bringing wealth and fame to the island, its brave sponge-divers and its shrewd merchants.
Once centred near the Dodecanese archipelago, sponge-harvesting extended as far as the North African coast, until rising sea temperatures and the consequent outbreak of diseases decimated sponge crops in the past decades. After the Arab Unrest of 2011 and the following instability of the Southern Mediterranean coasts, the Kalymnian sponge-fishing fleet returned to harvest sponges closer to home.
Sponge-diving techniques followed the changes in scuba diving methods. The first divers were only equipped with a harpoon at first, and a heavy stone tied to a rope to dive deeper and direct their movements underwater, afterwards. Even though the introduction of the diving suit – called “skafandro” – in the second half of the 19th century revolutionised sponge diving and made the sponge business boom throughout Europe, it also led to many divers suffer from decompression sickness, causing 10,000 deaths and 20,000 paralysis in less than 20 years among Greek sponge-divers.
Today the sponge fleet still sails off for the sponge fishing season on the week after Easter – the most important event in the Orthodox church calendar and the biggest festival for the community of Kalymnos – and receives a solemn and extended farewell by the entire community before leaving, as it has always traditionally done.