The small Greek island of Symi, in the south-eastern Aegean, was once home to some of the world's finest sponge divers. Such was the value of their harvest that the island became one of the wealthiest seaports in the Mediterranean. Today, little of this is evident at first glance. Despite the exceptionally clear water and steep drop-offs that make this the perfect diver's island, there are no diving schools or facilities. Strict laws prohibit sport diving in an effort to protect the many archaeological treasures still lying off the island's shores. Visitors may venture under water only in snorkelling gear, to glimpse the island's steep blue slopes in the fleeting seconds of a held breath. Today this rugged, steep-sided island is sought out by those with a taste for tranquillity and the simple things in life, but to explore the narrow streets of the island's town, Yalou, is to turn a page of diving history.
By Frank Allen
IMAGINE, if you can, sliding down an inclined plank from a boat into the sea, clinging firmly to a large, flat stone. You plummet vertically, clearing your ears against a primitive nose-clip while trying to judge the approach of the bottom - a difficult task, as you have no mask. Using the rock as a crude hydroplane, you angle it upwards to avoid a high-speed crash, and so arrive on the seabed to begin work. The depth is 20m, and your task is to locate and cut free as many sponges as you can before your breath runs out. This is a job made doubly difficult by the fact that you have no fins.
Your only luxury is a light line tied around your wrist. One sharp tug will get you a free ride back to the surface. After a short rest, down you go again.
This was the ancient way of sponge-diving, or "naked diving". It is a technique beautifully depicted on a bas-relief in Yalou's small museum. It was the method used by local hero Stathis Hatzis in July 1913, when he secured a line to the fouled anchor chain of an Italian battleship off the island of Karpathos.
Reaching a depth of 88m in an incredible dive lasting more than 31/2 minutes, he was rewarded with a gold medal and the right to travel free for life on any Italian ship of his choice. But it was not Symi's naked divers who brought fame and fortune to the island. It was the arrival of technology. At some time during the middle of the last century, a set of Augustus Siebe's revolutionary diving gear turned up on the island and transformed its primitive sponge-diving industry at a stroke. By using the distinctive copper helmet and canvas suit, divers could not only see clearly underwater for the first time, but could venture deeper and for longer than ever before.
The introduction of this equipment heralded a "gold-rush" for sponges. By 1880, fortunes were being made from the rich harvests gathered by the island's first generation of technical divers. Much of this money was re-invested in the industry to provide more boats, crews, and divers. Waterfront properties were converted into processing plants, where whole families were employed to beat, clean, clip and pack the precious sponges for export to every major city in the world.
Soon almost every islander was involved in the sponge trade, working at sea or finding employment in the supporting enterprises ashore. By now, the building trade was trying to keep pace with increasing demands for new villas, which took shape high on the hillsides overlooking the harbour. They were more spacious and opulent than anything previously seen on Symi. In the town's only foundry, the original Siebe diving dress and pump were copied and reproduced by Symiot craftsmen, using basic blacksmith's tools and a forge. As a result, most diving was being done with locally made gear, which could be replaced or repaired on the spot.
As the most accessible sponge-beds were gradually depleted, the divers were forced to venture deeper and further afield. Working in the indigo twilight beyond 60m, with no knowledge of decompression illness or dive tables, their working lives were short.
Many would survive deep diving over a long period, only to be killed or crippled for life when narcosis so muddled their minds that they were unable to answer simple signals on their lifelines.
Believing their divers to be in the clutches of some unknown horror far below, the linesmen would pluck them from the seabed and haul them back to the surface as fast as muscular arms could work. In such situations, most divers would die purple-faced and broken, at the feet of men whose only thought had been to save their lives.
By 1910, the sponge fleet was spending up to seven months a year away from home searching for new grounds, and its passage was marked by a sad trail of divers' graves. Divers continued to push the limits in leaky suits and with foundry-made pumps barely able to supply enough air to keep them alive.
One man in three was either dead, crippled, or marked for death before he reached marriageable age. For the families waiting at home, sponge-diving became known as The Tyranny. It took away husbands, fathers and sons, and left behind a community to carry on as best it could.
The situation could not be sustained, and eventually the Symiots gave up diving altogether. By 1919, the boats leaving Symi were still manned by Symiots, but they carried volunteer divers from the nearby island of Kalymnos, who became the ones to risk their lives. The Symiots risked only their money.
With the later development of man-made sponges, the industry gradually spluttered to a halt, and by the 1950s it had faded into history.
Today, the gentle mask of tourism hides much of this story, but the inquisitive visitor can still find evidence of Symi's diving past. Old copper helmets, ancient pumps and even the old foundry can be found among the sleepy streets of the town. Along the quay, a sprawling boatyard still marks the spot where hundreds of sponge-boats first took to the water. On the hillsides many crumbling villas, once the pride of wealthy sponge merchants, maintain a forlorn vigil across the harbour.
Perhaps the most touching of all links with the past is the way it is remembered in dance. The Bends Dance, performed in Symi to this day, is a depiction of vigorous youth reduced to shuffling helplessness by the voracious demands of The Tyranny. It is a fitting reminder of what was once the true price of a sponge. Meanwhile, beneath the sea, sponges are gradually making a comeback. They are not yet plentiful, but they can be found readily enough by a fit snorkeller, and can be collected, as in ancient times, on a held breath at depth.