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Dust in the water

Sponges are disappearing from the ocean floor, and so, maybe, is Taso Karistinos' way of life.

By KELLEY BENHAM
Published November 27, 2005


photo
[Times photos: Ted McLaren]
Taso Karistinos, empty-handed, prepares to climb over the side of his boat, the Anastasi, after diving into the Gulf of Mexico in a fruitless search for sponges.
Go to photo gallery with audio


  photo
Karistinos started sponging in 1973. “It gets into your blood and you get addicted,” he says. “It’s the worst kind of addiction.”
Karistinos holds a journal given to him by his mentor, legendary sponge diver John C. Maillis. In the book, “John the Greek” recorded the coordinates of diving spots teeming with life. “That’s treasure to me,” Karistinos says.
Hear Taso Karistinos talk about "John the Greek"

Karistinos drives his legs hard as he runs along the bottom of the gulf, a hook in one hand and a bag of sponges in the other. “This is my garden,” he says. “I see it looking bad. You should have seen this place when it was healthy.”
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GULF OF MEXICO - From the edge of the Anastasi, the water is slick and blue, the way it always looks on days so calm. Lots of people love the water like this, from the safety of the side of a boat.

Taso Karistinos believes that to know the sea you have to sink inside it, surrender to it. He has walked on the bottom of the gulf for 27 years.

He straps on a tight wet suit for the first time in two months. Hurricanes have kept him on land so long he has grown cranky. To lift his spirits, he has brought his boat to his favorite place: west of Bayport, not too far from home, the water not too deep, a spot the old-timers showed him when he was younger. The bottom here is so thick with living sponges, he has roamed it for years and never picked it clean. At the docks in Tarpon Springs, everyone is talking about what Red Tide has done to the life underwater, but Taso does not believe them. He has to see for himself.

He feels baptized by the first dive. The water is November cold, and the salt stings where he burned his ribs on the boat engine this morning. The pain makes him feel strong. Sixty pounds of lead strapped to his chest drag him to the floor. When his boots hit the sand he always says a prayer, and when his regulator gurgles he remembers the brother who drowned this way, deep in the waters of Greece.

When the fizz clears, he looks for the lushness he remembers. "My heaven," Taso calls this place. He once wrote those very words on his nautical chart.

Through the mask and the haze, he can't grasp what he is seeing. Around him is empty water, no fish. Below him is bare rock. Gaping, vacant shells. Bleached coral. He searches for the small sponges he left here to grow, but they are gone. He sees shapes of sponges, but on his hook they disintegrate.

Dust in the water.

He signals for a rope and climbs it to the boat.

"Graveyard," he says.

* * *

Taso's name, Anastasios, and the name of his boat, Anastasi, mean the same thing.

Resurrection.

The aptness of the name is not lost on Taso. Sponge divers have always walked a line between life and death, and so has the industry they built 100 years ago this summer along the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs.

Once, 180 sponge boats docked there. Less than a dozen remain. When Taso drives his red pickup along Dodecanese Boulevard, by the gift shops and Greek restaurants, he doesn't look like a relic. He's only 52, thick across the shoulders, with calves like rocks. But that's what he is.

Whenever a documentary film crew arrives in town looking for a colorful character - a crusty old Greek in a diving suit - it ends up on Taso's boat with his German shepherd and, if the crew is unlucky, his irritable pet pigeon.

Perhaps they expect a variety of characters to choose from: the sons of so many Greek families who settled this city, still carrying on a fading tradition. But those men have died or quit. Of the few divers remaining, most are fairly new to the business and are not even Greek.

Taso was born in Greece. As a boy, he would sneak away from chores to snorkel and spearfish all day, then go home with sea salt on his brow and take a beating from his father. "They make me sleep hungry with the dog," he says. When he'd wake up, he could still see the diving mask marks on his face.

When he arrived in Tarpon Springs in his 20s, he saw the attraction all tourists see: the diver in the old-fashioned copper helmet who picks a sponge from the Anclote River. Taso paid his $2 and had his picture taken with the diver. The water reminded him of home. Soon he became a diver on the Agatha. "I was so powerful, I could pull the boat," he says.

The captain of the Agatha, George Billiris, remembers Taso filling the boat so full of sponges, there was hardly room for men to walk. When Taso came out of the water, Billiris would make the sign of the cross over him, to protect him.

Billiris is 78 now, a merchant who buys the sponges that Taso and the other divers bring in. He watches hotel and condo proposals squeeze closer to the Sponge Docks while sponging and tourism, linked and limping, hinge on those few remaining boats, those few remaining men.

"We are in trouble, no doubt about it," he says from his sponge warehouse, back orders piling up.

The divers are trying to sustain something more personal. Taso never feels so alive as he does underwater, the place he is closest to his own mortality. There he has felt his heart quiver with narcosis, has bitten his tongue to stay at the edge of consciousness. He has felt his oxygen cut off. Punched a shark in the nose.

Above the water, he feels uncertain of his ability to continue in this business. It is not a new feeling. This year has been the worst.

He has spent the last two months stuck on land, straitjacketed by a shortage of crews. He has waited through hurricanes and this sickness in the water. "I couldn't concentrate on nothing," he says. "I lose sleep. Can't eat. Can't function."

Summer is the moneymaking season. When the water turns cold, most divers stay in. Now Canadian tags are showing up in the gift shop parking lots, but Taso is just heading out, catching up.

"Cold water separates the men from the boys," he likes to say. He tells his crews Santa doesn't come to the sponge divers; they have to chase him down.

* * *

So on this Thursday morning, he points the boat north, against the waves and weather. He likes the feel of the boat tackling the elements, the rhythmic collision of the water and the bow. Air rushes through the cabin. He combs his hair straight forward like Prince Valiant. "See?" he says. "I am prince on my boat."

The Anastasi, a 46-footer he designed himself, is nearly paid for, but not yet. He can't just walk away, and it's hard to know if he wants to. He lived onboard this boat seven years before he got a house. He can tell by the vibrations under his feet when the fuel filter is dirty. Standing at the captain's wheel, he is surrounded by the miracles of modern navigation: The GPS shows his location, radar shows what surrounds him, a depth finder shows whether there is life on the ocean floor. Everywhere are images of St. Nicholas, who protects the sailors. Holy water dangles in a vial.

Helping him is Jason Capra, 27 and blond, a friend of Taso's son. Jason went to Tarpon Springs High School - home of the Spongers - where no real sponger ever spoke at career day that he remembers.

When Taso dives again, farther north, Jason guides the boat, making sure Taso's air hose doesn't tangle. By watching a buoy attached to Taso's back, Jason can tell whether he is picking sponges or moving, searching for life.

"I just do this for the adventure," Jason says. Years from now he might tell stories about it or visit a sponging museum. He likes to fall asleep looking for shooting stars when land is just a memory, watch the dolphins play, fillet grouper while it's still flopping and eat stone crab claws while the crab in the water is still wondering what happened.

His full-time job, the one he prefers, is building houses. Divers spend weeks away from girlfriends and cell phone towers, working as long as there is light in the sky. The sponges stink for days as they die; they need constant wringing and rinsing and turning. Jason has spent days anchored in rough weather. Arguments on the boats are legendary. Jason has seen Taso throw his weight belt and break the boards on the deck.

"Nobody my age wants to work on the water," Jason says.

Taso signals, using the buoy, that he is finished here. Jason can always tell by the way his eyes look through the mask how the dive went. This dive was not much better than the last.

The net has a few wool and yellow sponges, two of the types that sell. Taso sorts them.

"Dying," he says, fishing one from the net and reaching for another. "This one has the cancer." Another. "Sick." Another. "This one's sick."

Something has eaten gooey holes into their middles and rotted their skins. The skeleton - the part of the sponge that is dried and sold - is showing through the slimy flesh. In a few days, these sponges would have been dust in the water too.

"Here is some dead coral. Supposed to be fire red. All bleached out. All the coral. Look at that. This is dying. Gone. The Gulf of Mexico, gone."

He says he wants to cry. He tells Jason they'll eat spaghetti tonight. There are no fish here, and if there were, he would not eat them after they swam in the water that did this.

In the cabin he turns on Dr. Phil, his favorite show, and pours himself a cup of red wine from Greece. Wine, he says, is the only drink that Jesus blessed.

* * *

All day Friday the boat churns north, Taso dives again and again and again, the water turns clearer, the sponges grow healthier, his mood improves.

He daydreams he could stop sponging and run a charter boat, charge people to listen to his stories and eat his "grouper souper," which they love as long as they don't see the fish heads staring from the pot. He could paint bridges, climb towers 50 feet in the air. He could do a lot of things.

He takes his spear gun to a place with clear water west of Homosassa and returns with a bag loaded with grouper and hog snapper, his wet suit jacket stuffed with stone crab claws.

He is content here, giggling and joking. His dog is happy and barking. Mouri, he calls her. Or just Girl. Everything, even the cucumbers in the salad, makes him think of Greece. He thinks of the fish he speared there growing up. He was like a ghost in the water then. He killed birds too, and he feels so bad about it now. He loves birds, the way their hearts flutter in his hands. He saved a baby pigeon as penance for killing so many. My poulaki, little birdie, he calls this pigeon, which follows him now like a parrot follows a pirate. He left it at home this trip because it bites and poops all over the boat. He woke up this morning missing it.

"Gonna be a nice night," he says. "Picnic night. I'm going to open a restaurant and cook just two dishes: fried fish and grouper souper."

Saturday, he makes his tea with Greek honey and greets the sun. "Louie," he calls it.

He is still thinking of home. The honey in his tea reminds him of his grandfather's honeybees. When he left, people on his island of Evia were still using donkeys and horses. He is looking at a picture of his parents behind the captain's wheel. Maria, 81, gave birth to 16 children. She lost four as babies and one to the water. Taso is the only sponger. After Dimitri died, Taso went to Greece and took apart the scuba tanks so the rest of his brothers could not dive.

Anestis, 82, was a carpenter and farmer, with olive trees by the sea. Mean as he was, he cried when Taso left. When Taso got to America and learned that a workday was eight hours, he thought: half a day?

Taso's son is also named Anestis. He has his father's gift for diving, but he makes his living painting houses. Taso seems okay with that. He doesn't want to fight with his son, and he doesn't want him sponging.

Taso feels good this morning, but so many mornings he wakes up feeling, he says, like a beat-up octopus and drinks coffee until his heart hurts.

"You get hurt, you get cut, you get black and blue. Red Tide. Muddy water."

His hearing is going. It sounds half the time like he's still in the water. He's always sticking Q-tips in his ears. At night, water trickles onto his pillow.

"I bust my ass and drown my ass. None of the buyers are sports. I tell them, "You go get the sponges. They are out there.' "

Prices haven't changed much in 30 years. George Billiris, the sponge merchant, will argue that the quality is not what it used to be. Taso would like to teach his pigeon to poop on George Billiris. He would like to find a way to cook the sponge and eat it so he wouldn't have to sell for such low prices. Billiris has heard all this before. He thinks of Taso as a son.

"The buyers sleep in the nice beds and wait for the idiot to bring it in," Taso says. "None of them buy me a beer, say thank you for your sponges."

A little bird, maybe a migrating warbler, flies into the cabin, looking tired. Land is out of sight.

"Poulaki!"

Taso scoops it up. It coos. Its heart flutters in his hands. He used to tell Jason not to whistle on the boat because whistling would bring the wind. But the bird made him forget his aggravation and the water has been calm and he has a Greek song in his head. He whistles the whole thing.

Underwater that day he finds the sea the way he remembered it. The slimy black blobs of the wool sponges, the yellow sponges, which are actually red. The finger sponges, which look like their name, orange hands reaching up like stalks of coral. Big grass sponges like barrels rising from the brown weeds. He rakes them with his hook and they float up into the water and he swats them into the net with his gloved hand. He bobbles a puffer fish and picks up a four-legged starfish. Above him the water is aqua gray and the sun a pale spot vaguely east. It's easy to lose track of the boat.

The old-timer, John the Greek, taught him not to give up easily under the water. Finish one area; there could be another nearby. What sponge divers do is usually described as walking the bottom, almost in slow motion, but this is not what Taso does. When Taso finishes one area, he digs his boots into the sand and runs, searching for another, churning against the current, arms pumping, like something is chasing him.

The winds pick up in the night. Maybe the whistling on the boat brought them. Taso barely sleeps.

* * *

Morning brings the chatter on the radio, which means it is Sunday. The people with more comfortable weekday jobs are out on their little motorboats. Taso and Jason chuckle at them sometimes, their radio chitchat and their engine trouble.

They have been out four days. By the fourth day, Jason always starts to fantasize about home. The sponges smell rankly sweet even with the wind blowing over the deck. Squinting at the horizon, if he can see the power plant at Crystal River, he will convince himself he can swim for land.

They eat cold fried snapper for breakfast. Taso shaves with saltwater and enjoys the sting. He says "buenos dias" to Louie the sun and plays with his dog, but his mood is falling. He found healthy sponges 40 miles from home, but not many, not enough. Jason has work tomorrow, and it's time to head back.

Taso will make about $250, enough to pay for his groceries but not his gas. This trip wasn't so much about finding sponges as finding answers, and now he has some. He knows not to bother with the spots he loves close to home. Travel farther. What he will do next year, he isn't sure.

Now he is passing over flat, bare bottom, dead water. Two dives today have brought up dying sponges. It will only get worse farther south.

"I wish I was a doctor," he says. "I don't have to go through this."

Yesterday he asked Jason to be his mate on a charter boat, and Jason said no, come with me and build houses. Taso said someday he'll work in an office and smoke a cigar. He put his boot up on the console to see how that would feel, but water poured out all over the cabin floor.

Now he's back at his captain's wheel, thinking about the past, about the old-timer, John the Greek. He dove for sponges for 67 years.

"He the only one tell me the secrets of the sponges," Taso says. "You can dive and you think they are not there, but they are there. I take a chart, I open it on his table. He point me here, he point me here, every place he point me, from Pensacola to the Everglades, I find sponges."

He pointed Taso to the place he dove the first day of this trip, the place he called "my heaven," the place the boat is about to carry him back over, where everything is now dead.

John the Greek - everyone just called him "Greek" - dove for the last time at 81. Heart surgery and shoulder replacement made it impossible after that. He gave Taso his wet suit and his sponging hook. "He said, "You deserve it.' He was crying when he give it to me. I cry too.

"Then he brought out a box. He said, "I don't want to give this to somebody else; I'd rather throw it away. Take it to remember me.' "

John the Greek died a month later, in 2002. Taso was out on the Gulf of Mexico. He was a pallbearer at the funeral.

"All the sponge divers, we carry him," he says. "John the Greek. He was a legend."

Taso gets up. Walks over to the bunks. Digs around, comes back with two little notebooks, tied together with a gold string. On the cover the first one says: John C. Maillis.

"I never open it before."

He thinks about it, and he is quiet awhile.

He unties the little string and holds the books to his chest. He smells them.

"It smells like his house," he says. Then he slams them down and walks out on the deck, alone.

* * *

When he comes back, he turns the pages. Mostly page after page of latitude and longitude, where John the Greek dove and walked the bottom and found sponges. They are treasure maps.

Sometimes he made notes in English, sometimes in Greek. Here he found wool, there he found grass. Here they were small, there they were large. "WNW of #2 Taso gave us Grouper and Hog Snapper," he wrote. On another day, "Grampy threw the basket over without hooking it." And then:

NW of Big Bank

** The bar I have been looking for

Taso looks at the little line on his GPS monitor that represents the Anastasi, plowing straight south. Around him on the water, other boats are coming into view. He doesn't know where this bar is, but it's probably way off his course.

He plugs the coordinates in anyway, just to see.

Three miles, straight behind him.

"We pass it," he says.

He's quiet. There is only the sound of the engine churning and the wind rushing through the cabin door. The dog is sleeping out on the deck and the boat is at full throttle and they will make it home in plenty of time.

He grabs the captain's wheel in both hands and spins it, hard.

On the GPS, the Anastasi does a fishhook. Taso holds the little notebook in his hands and kisses it.

Life comes into view on Taso's monitor just where the old man said it would.

"John the Greek, look at this," Taso says. "Look at this, look at this, look at this. I'm gonna light you a candle when I get in. A big one."

He stops the boat too fast and overshoots the bar and barks at Jason for it.

"Relax," Jason tells him.

"How can I relax? I'm excited."

He is grinning when he jumps in. He shows up on his own depth finder as a streak of red bubbles. Life in the water.

He doesn't run around down there. He walks slowly and takes his time.

Jason keeps the boat close, standing at the wheel with the dog licking his toes.

He can always tell by the way Taso's eyes look through the mask how the dive went. Taso is not grinning anymore when he comes up the ladder.

He speaks to the dog first. "Mouri ...," he says.

"There was sponge here. They are dying here, too. Once there was a lot of sponge here, but not no more." He tosses a few overboard. Some are starting to smell.

John the Greek taught him not to give up easily under the water, to keep looking.

But Taso says he's seen enough.

* * *

Behind the wheel, sun streaming in on his face through the cabin door, he points the boat south toward home. The way is lined with bloated fish, bobbing and gleaming white on the blue surface. He counts them until he tires of it, there are so many. Redfish and maybe grouper, it's hard to tell.

He guides the Anastasi over the graveyards and into the mouth of the river, past a fancy yacht he joked he might someday own, past two shrimp boats abandoned in another kind of graveyard, past the St. Phillip, St. Michael and the Susie Sea, all done sponging for the season, past a little boy waving from the docks, past the bronze statue of the sponge diver holding his heavy helmet, past the boat where once he paid to have his picture taken with the sponge diver, past the boat George Billiris' father built, past the tourists, who point and wave, up to what remains of the Agatha, which as a young diver Taso loaded so full of sponges he could hardly walk the deck.

He docks his boat beside it and ties to its mast, and when he steps on its deck, he walks lightly now, because the old boat is rotting away.

- Kelley Benham can be reached at 727 893-8848 or benham@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 25, 2005, 08:33:02]


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