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Portrait of Sponge Diver John M. Gonatos

World Digital Library,


The Florida sponge diving industry developed in the area of Tarpon Springs beginning in the late 19th century. In 1891, the entrepreneur John King Cheyney founded the Anclote and Rock Island Sponge Company. Cheyney initially harvested sponges from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico by hooking the sponges from boats. In 1897, Cheyney employed a young Greek sponge buyer and technical expert, John Cocoris, who explained how sponge divers in Greece, using rubberized wet suits, could harvest four times as much sponge as people working from boats. Cheyney placed advertisements for sponge divers in several Greek language newspapers. Some 500 Greek men answered the ads and came to Tarpon Springs to work in the developing industry. This 1946 photograph shows diver John Michael Gonatos striking a pose in his patched canvas wet suit. In 1939, Gonatos shot a 16-millimeter documentary, The Story of Sponge, in which he filmed divers underwater working the murky sponge banks. The heyday of sponge diving in Florida was in the 1940s and 1950s, when sponges were a major industry for the state. Over-fishing and disease led to a long eclipse for the industry, from which it is only now slowly recovering.
Place: North America; United States of America; Florida; Tarpon Springs
Institution: State Library and Archives of Florida
Physical description: 1 photoprint : black and white ; 4 x 3 inches