A boatload of great stories
A veteran sponge diver delights a crowd with tales of storms, sharks and the biggest sponge he ever caught.
By LARITA JACOBS, Times Correspondent
Published September 30, 2007
TARPON SPRINGS - In slang, a sponger is a moocher or a freeloader, but when 83-year-old Phil Fatolitis recalls his days as a sponger, he speaks of earning riches.
Introduced as "a legend in our own time," Fatolitis drew a crowd last week at a Tarpon Springs Historical Society meeting. The Fatolitis family represents four generations of deep-sea diving, and that gives Fatolitis great stories to tell.
As far back as 1000 B.C., the writings of Homer mentioned Greek sponge fishermen who plummeted into the sea holding a heavy rock. The divers would cut sponges from the sea bottom for as long as they could hold their breath and were hauled up by a tether.
Fatolitis' story begins with his grandfather, a rock diver.
"My grandfather would go to depths of 100 to 240 feet," he said. "He had a rock with a hole in it, a line attached to it, and he could guide that rock and turn it whatever way he wanted."
His father was injured by decompression sickness as a young man, so Fatolitis' eight uncles were the divers of the second generation. Fatolitis' career as a sponge diver lasted 23 years, and his oldest child, George, was a sponger for 20 years.
Coming to Tarpon Springs in 1930 because of the Depression, the Fatolitis family joined the operation of Uncle Pete - Petros Fatolitis - who was an established sponger.
Fatolitis learned from Uncle Pete, and after four years of duties as a deck hand on his boat, he was allowed to dive at 16. Teased by the crew for allowing the tide to carry him away from the sponge beds, Fatolitis summoned a determination that made his first dive trip a success.
"In less than four days, I found more sponge than they did," he said. "They gave me $1,200 for my share, which at that time was a lot of money."
With a mischievous grin, Fatolitis spoke of those riches.
"We had rivals. The spongers were making a lot of money, and the fishermen couldn't afford what we could afford. So, naturally, the young ladies would go with the spongers because they were good-looking and had the money, too."
But the spongers' fortunes could shift as quickly as the tides - especially if they carried Red Tide.
In 1939, the sponge beds were struck by "the biggest blight we ever had," Fatolitis said. "In one month you couldn't find a sponge in the whole coast. If you found a sponge, as soon as you put the hook on it, it was just like smoke. It just disintegrated."
In a lively question and answer session, Fatolitis told of dive trips taking two to three weeks, of getting used to the foul odors a curing sponge emits, and of the difference between valuable wool sponges and other sponges that are merely decorative.
His audience wanted more, so the questions continued and so did his tales.
His prize catch?
"The biggest sponge we ever caught was in 72 feet of water, and they were bigger than a washtub. I brushed against it. I thought it was a loggerhead (turtle). Well, believe it or not, that was a wool sponge."
"The only two sharks I was ever afraid of were hammerheads and bull sharks. Bull sharks keep circling."
"Oodles of them. If you were in deep water and a nor'easter came up, you couldn't come home. You stayed out on anchor to just ride it out."
"I was about 140 pounds when I started. Our diving gear weighed more. Shoes were 35 pounds each, (the diving) suit maybe 35 to 40 pounds, leg weights 75 pounds, helmet and breast plate 45 pounds. But you don't feel that on the bottom. Today, they still wear some lead to keep them down."
When the hour ended, the audience wanted more. That's something Fatolitis knows about.
"My wife won't let me dive anymore. My doctor says I can't do it anymore.
"My heart says, 'Go for it.'"