Siebe’s diving suit allowed divers to be more productive than ever. Sponge-diving ships ventured further from shore, spending around six months at sea and sending divers to depths of more than 230 feet, where the finest sponges could be found. Their harvests boomed accordingly, and sponge merchants made money hand over fist.
The rise and fall of a maritime industry
By Maria Mavrelli, Program Director, Greece
Beneath the clear, warm waters of the Dodecanese Islands, there lies an abundance of a commodity which today we tend to take for granted: sponges. In modern times, it’s hard to think of picking up a sponge as an adventure; all you need to do is go to the store. But there was a time when the story of the sponge was far more exciting.
From ancient times until around the 19th century, sponges were collected by a daring method called skin-diving. Clad in little more than their bravado, divers would cling to a round, flat stone attached to a rope and plummet to the bottom of the sea, reaching depths of up to 100 feet. Their task was to collect as many sponges from the ocean floor as they could before their breath ran out; an urgent pull on a rope tied around their wrist was their ticket back to the fresh air above.
While this method could hardly be considered efficient, the merchants of the Dodecanese nonetheless prospered as a result. One island that fared especially well was the isle of Symi, located at the southern end of the Dodecanese chain. Symi’s golden age began in the 19th century, when a Symiot merchant acquired a diving suit from Augustus Siebe, a German engineer who revolutionized the diving profession.
But the affluence came at a dreadful cost. By spending so much time at such low depths, and then quickly ascending back to the surface multiple times per day, the Greek sponge divers exposed themselves to decompression sickness, a debilitating condition commonly known as “the bends.” The bends took a great toll upon the Dodecanese divers, disabling or claiming the lives of as many as one-third of those who took the plunge. Symiot families grew weary of mysteriously losing their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers to the sponge-diving trade (which they ruefully dubbed “the tyranny”) and by 1919, Symi had scaled back its role in the industry significantly—merchants still funded expeditions, but left the actual diving in the hands of outside help.
As you walk Symi’s streets, evidence of its sponge-diving heritage can still be found all around if you look closely enough—from the antique diving equipment on display at the Naval Museum, to the opulent merchant homes perched upon the island’s hills. As you admire Symi’s splendid sights, be sure to keep in mind the price its people paid to get there.