Tarpon Springs, FL.- The village of Tarpon Springs Florida, founded by Greek sponge divers more than a century ago is ready to have its 102nd Epiphany Celebration, on January 6, 2008. More than 30,000 people are expected to attend the blessing of the waters ceremony and watch the dive for the cross in Spring Bayou.
Archbishop Demetrios will preside over the ceremony in the largest Greek Orthodox Epiphany celebration in the United States, if not the whole world.
The event is a 4-day long religious celebration by Greek Orthodox followers that includes a morning service at the St. Nicholas Cathedral, dive for the cross in Spring Bayou, releasing a white dove of peace, Greek foods, music and dancing.
Tarpon Springs is home to the largest concentration of Greek Americans in the United States and it is called “The Epiphany City”. Since the livelihood of the initial Greek immigrants hinged around the sea and their boats, their attachment to a religious service centered at requesting divine protection for what used to be a highly risky job can be easily explained.
The celebration attracts Greek Americans from across the country, and the city’s population is known to triple in size for that day.
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral (727) 937-3542), 36 N. Pinellas Avenue, began as a small church in 1908 seating 250 people. Building of a new cathedral, a replica of St. Sophia in Constantinople, Istanbul, began in 1941. The church was consecrated on the feast of the Epiphany in 1943. Sixty tons of Greek marble went into the construction.
For Greek Orthodox families, their church is the center of their lives and this cathedral reflects the deep commitment of the Greek community to their faith and connecting the Old World with the New World.
In 1900 small sea creatures called sponges were discovered in the Gulf of Mexico. When cured and dried, different kinds of sponges have a multitude of uses. The worldwide demand was, and still is, quite high. Discovering vast sponge beds on the Gulf floor led to a gold rush of sorts, only this was a sponge rush.
Within a few years over 500 divers arrived from the Greek Islands. They brought with them mechanized diving methods – sending a diver down with an oxygen line, heavy rubber suits and lead weights to keep them on the bottom. Before that, sponges were hooked from the bottom with long poles lowered from the water’s surface.
A Greek fishing village, complete with the traditional white buildings and blue trim, sprung up on the banks of the Anclote River. It is still a working port today. Sponge boats and fishing boats are tied up the docks. Across the street shops sell the cured sponges.
Within a few blocks of the docks there are 15 restaurants serving Greek food and an estimated 125 family owned stores. Many put their wares out on the sidewalks for colorful display.
Towards the end of the Sponge Dock area is the Tarpon Springs Aquarium (727) 938-5378 at 850 Dodecanese Boulevard. Shark feeding shows are held daily.
The sponging industry has ebbs and flows. In the 1940s, a blight appeared and wiped out the beds but the sponges returned to the Gulf of Mexico in the 1980s. Most sponging is done during the summer months. During the 1920s, spongers began taking tourists out on the sponge boats in the winter season, a tradition that continues today.
St. Nicholas Boat Line (727) 942-6425) at 693 Dodecanese Boulevard, started the tourist sponge diving exhibition and half-hour round trips continue the family tradition. The diver dresses in the original equipment, goes down, finds a sponge in the river and brings it on board.