TARPON SPRINGS FLORIDA: SPONGE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD

I have to admit, I’ve never given much thought to the sponges in my life. Tarpon Springs Florida, however devotes a great deal of thought to sponges. So much in fact that the town’s very existence depends on the boneless beauties.

I knew we had to visit.

Before we begin our sponge adventure, I feel it necessary to make a public service announcement regarding a heretofore, unknown to us, menace of springtime in Florida.

The Lovebug.

We are from California. We have bugs there. Flies, mosquitos and the usual culprits that can be battled with swatters and repellents, but we were completely unprepared for Florida Lovebugs.

I first must mention that this trip took place in early May of 2018. We left Pensacola, Florida and headed to Lake City, Florida for a quick overnight stop at Lake City Rv Resort. On the way, we began noticing large black bugs who didn’t fly very well and who made big gooey splatters on our windows when we hit them. At a rest stop, we saw a windshield washer for trucks. I thought it was genius. The bugs weren’t that bad yet but I was about to find out how very necessary a windshield washer could be. More on that later.

We arrived at Lake City Rv Park in the late afternoon. It is located right next to the freeway but the road noise wasn’t bad, it was buffered a bit by the trees. The campground is small but nicely landscaped with lots of flowers and a couple of small ponds.

In the morning we set off for our next destination, Big Oaks Rv Park in Spring Hill Florida. The further south we drove, the more bugs we collected. When we arrived at the park, the RV looked like this.

Arriving at Big Oaks, we learned another thing about traveling in an RV in Florida. Early May is the end of the season for snowbirds. This is a good thing because it means more available sites. It is a bad thing because of the aforementioned bugs and the fact that many parks have reduced staff and fewer amenities.

Big Oaks, was unimpressive when we pulled in, there were many permanent rigs at the front, some a little worse for wear. We were greeted by an older gentleman, one of the residents who was helping the owner. We handed him cash for the stay and that was that. He guided us into a slightly uneven, dirt space, in the middle of the park. Directly across from us sat a derelict, abandoned mobile home. While all of this sounds iffy, and it may be off-putting for some people, it didn’t bother us in the least. The residents were some of the nicest, most laid back people we’ve met. In general and where it mattered, the park was well kept and extremely quiet. The larger, seasonal rigs were allotted a clean open space at the far end of the park.

I did make a point of asking the old gentleman about the bugs. He said they’re called Lovebugs.

This is what I learned on Google: They fly erratically because they are mating. It’s actually two bugs attached end to end. They can remain coupled for several days. They can number in the hundreds of thousands and become like snowfall because there are so many lazily drifting around. They’re a nuisance because their bodies are acidic and if left on your car for more than an hour or two, they become extremely difficult to remove and can cause damage to the surface.

Great!

Stores sell special cleaners just for this purpose. For some reason they are attracted to automobile fumes and asphalt which is why there are so many on the roads. They can also cause clogged radiators.

Fantastic!

The good news is, they have a relatively short lifespan. They have mating flights twice a year. Once in April and May and the second in August and September. The flights only last 4-5 weeks.

Lets hope it ends soon!

On to more pleasant subjects…we parked in this location because it was central to exploring the attractions I wanted to see.

First stop Tarpon Springs sponge docks.

The first settlers in Tarpon Springs were fishermen who noticed spotted Tarpon jumping out of the water, thus the name Tarpon Springs. In the 1880’s John Cheyney founded the first local sponge business. In the 1890’s a few Greek immigrants arrived to work in the sponge industry. In 1905 John Cocoris introduced sponge diving by recruiting sponge divers from Greece. Before that, sponges were harvested by long hooks. Due to changing environmental factors the sponge industry is smaller now but still very much alive in Tarpon Springs and a popular draw for tourists.

The best way to learn about the sponge industry is by visiting the sponge docks which are located at the end of Dodecanese Blvd. This historic part of town encompasses about 5 or 6 blocks. As you enter the dock area you will see a giant building on the left called The Sponge Factory. Many buses stop here and park and if you have a large RV this is where you want to park. The rest of the streets in town are narrow.

The Sponge Factory is a modern tourist shopping store. We’re rarely interested in a tourist “shopping” experience so we drove a little further down the road to a smaller “pay to park” lot.

All lots in the area require payment.

It was my goal to visit the more “roadside attraction” style museum called Spongeorama.

Spongeorama was founded in 1968. My kind of place!

This is a free attraction and while it’s mainly a store, their mission is also education. Upon entering, you are invited into a little “theater’ to watch a movie about the sponge industry. The first part is an informative presentation/sales pitch telling of the various types of sponges and their uses. I found it to be a little kitchy but also interesting. The second half is a movie which was made in 1953. It was filmed in Tarpon Springs and tells the history of the sponge industry as well as the different methods of harvesting and cleaning. There is so much more to the process than I ever knew! The sponges have to be cleaned, rocks and debris flushed out, an outer membrane removed, the sponges dried and on and on. Although it was an old movie, it was well made and extremely fascinating to me.

After the movie, there is a little museum in the back, unfortunately it was damaged during the last hurricane and closed the day we were there. The only other thing to do is to browse the sponges for sale.

I had no idea there were so many different kinds and uses for sponges. I bought a small makeup sponge for my granddaughter and a few other trinkets. Money well spent for unique and educational entertainment!

As we walked a little further down the street we were delighted to see that the sponge boats had just come in with new loads. The sponge store clerks had told us that the boats stay out about two weeks and we were lucky the timing was perfect.

We hurried out to watch them unload. The divers hauled out nets full of sponges, and spread them out on the dock.

They were happy to answer questions and chatted at great length about the sponges. They explained that the sponges would go to a warehouse for auction and they’re hoping to get a good price for them. Just like many other crops. Supply and demand.

A reminder that sponge diving is dangerous, a memorial to those divers who lost their lives.

The docks have other industries besides sponge diving. Shrimpers and fishermen and tour boat operators share the space.

Leaving the docks, we strolled through town. It’s very clear that this is a tourist destination. People hawking wares fill the doorways and sidewalks. Every store invites you to a sale, every restaurant invites you to lunch, every boat owner offers a tour.

We declined them all and enjoyed the sights.


Although my pictures don’t show it, the town feels very much like a small pocket of Greece was dropped into the USA. The people, the food, the buildings all represent that beautiful country.

It was still early in the day after we explored the docks so we decided to drive south toward St. Petersburg, staying as close to the coast as possible. There wasn’t much that we felt the need to stop and see so we just kept driving.

By mid-afternoon, we’d run out of road and found ourselves at Fort DeSoto Park. Time to do a little exploring.

Fort DeSoto Park is a county park and therefore a little more urbanized. More about recreation than historical exploration.

This is it’s history.

There were big guns and mortars…

…and a data booth…

…Exteriors…

…and interiors…

…best of all a small museum of historical photographs.

You can climb to the top of the fort…

and see all the air vents…

…but if you look the other way, this is the view…

A wide stairway leads down to the beach.

The remains of the collapsed Battery Bigelow litter the surf.

Fun to take pictures of.

Near the ruins was an osprey nest. We could just barely see two chicks through the zoom lens.

Not to be outdone, the shorebirds were showing off.

The ruler of all he surveys.

Out of my way, I have an appointment.

Just chillin’

The feeding frenzy! Potato chips!

The thing that surprised us the most was the warmth of the water. It was bathtub water. Quite a shock for a Californian used to the cold Pacific Ocean.

The beach had a sand spit that extended far into the bay. We couldn’t believe it was so shallow so far out!

This guy looks like he’s walking on water.

This is zoomed as far as it goes, unbelievable!

If we had known we would end up at such a nice beach, we might have planned better and brought our swim suits.

Lots of recreation opportunities and unparalleled beauty.

Alas, once again we’ve reached the end of the day and must turn back.

I’ll leave you with a parting shot. Random dinosaur by the roadside…

Only in Florida…

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