Symi’s residents were the first Greeks that ‘harvested’ sponges from the seabed. Later on, they passed that knowledge to more Greeks in Chalki, Kalymno and Kastelorizo. Towards the end of the 19th century, some Greek immigrants even reached Tarpon Springs in Florida and showed their methods of sponge diving to the Americans!
If we go further back, during 1522, when the Dodecanese were under the Turkish yoke, the Symians were asked to pay the Sultan 12.000 thick and 3.000 thin sponges in taxes! Moving along the centuries, in the 19th century the sponge divers would dive under the sea naked, while holding a flat rock weighing 15 kilos! This rock was called ‘kabanelopetra’ in Symi. In 1862, Fotis Mastoridis, a Symian resident brought the first diving suit from the Indies. That meant no more naked divers! Of course, to persuade the divers of its safety, he demonstrated its use by making his wife (Evgenia) dive under the port of Symi while wearing it.
Tragedies stroked the divers, due to the disease that affected them. Because they would rapidly emerge from the bottom of the sea, the decompression wouldn’t take effect quickly enough. This disease had symptoms like: rash, itching, blockage of brain pulmonary vessels and more. Many would die, and some would paralyze as a result of the symptoms. Moreover, the Turkish government in 1881 and the Italian governors during the World War I, forbade the sponge diving, which led to the decline of the sponge boat fleet and the immigration of many Symian residents.
Sponge diving was a very profitable job during the 1800’s and in Symi there were 250 sponge boats by 1863, who would rise in number throughout the years! At some point, the boats were 400 and more. Symi’s sponge boat fleet, then, was the biggest in the whole world! Their sponges were being sold in North Africa, London, even the U.S.A., through an industry in Symi under the name of Petrides Brothers, whose offices were in Syros, Piraeus and London. There are plenty types of sponges sold, some of them being: the elephant ear, the grass, the honeycomb etc.
The number of sponges has declined dramatically over the last 4 decades. This is due to the climate change and the rising of the sea’s temperature (according to scientists), thus the sponge divers cannot survive by doing this occupation alone. Nowadays, only a few fishermen exist that practice sponge diving as well, but the profits are not the same as the old days (before the 19th century). Within the next decades, it is estimated that the profession of sponge divers will disappear completely.