It is an amazing sensation when you realise that something basic can hide a wealth of history, tradition and romance. I would not have ever believed that a sponge could hold such an emotive story. It just sits there unashamed and unaware of having caused so many deaths and so much heartache.
I visited the island of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese, as an antidote to lying on the beach. As you approach the typically Greek harbour with its whitewashed houses and arid landscape you are pulled further into that law which says that the British must fall in love with the Greek way of life. The sugar cube houses reflect the sunlight and stand out against the cerulean blue of the sea, and the stories begin. During the Second World War, Kalymnos was occupied by the Italians who asked why the inhabitants painted their houses white.
“It reflects the sunlight and keeps the inside cool,” was the reply.
“And why are your roofs blue?”
“They reflect the colour of our beautiful sea.”
The Italians accepted this with equanimity, not realising that they lived out the remainder of their time on Kalymnos in the shadow of the Greek flag.
The real stories are to be found in the back streets where toothless old men smile in a different language. It’s the language that scorns tourists for their superficial treatment of this incredible product which contains as much history as it holds water.
In our high tech age, we think of vast machines spewing out multicoloured sponges of all shapes and sizes. In Kalymnos these machines were and are men who risked life and limb to earn enough to feed their family. Having to walk only 30 metres along the Strand to work does not sound like a great distance, but try going 30 metres vertically down with no protection and no breathing apparatus. It makes a 20 minute tube ride sound positively relaxing!
In the past, before diving could get underway there was the send off. The men left their families at Easter and were gone until the autumn. They had to bring back enough sponges to support their families or to propose to the girl of their dreams. This was not easy for a skin diver who relied on how long he could hold his breath. One man on the boat would pour some olive oil on the surface of the water and watch to see his friend got into trouble. The diver sank to the sea bed with a stone around his ankle, to help him sink faster, and his sponge bag.
Sponges do not have a habit of growing in easy to reach places, and the physical limitations were apparent. An incredible device was invented that contained breathing apparatus in a protective suit. Divers could now descend for at least an hour at a time, thereby earning more money – fantastic! How pleased were they? However, all technological advances have set backs. The suit meant more diving, and more diving meant more risk.
We all know that feeling of our ears popping, but these men ran the risk of ruptured ear drums and possibly the worst ailment: ‘bends’, named after the difficulty the sufferer had in straightening their joints, all due to resurfacing too quickly after a dive.
The divers weren’t to know about the ‘divers disease’ though. The symptoms were par for the course – it was a risky business. They were earning more money. The divers suffered numbness, paralysis, uncontrollable spasms and death. In her book ‘Bitter Sea’, Faith Warn tells us that “between 1886 and 1910, there were a staggering 10, 000 deaths and 20, 000 cases of paralysis among sponge divers in the Aegean – and the majority of victims were Kalymnians.”
And so the wonder-suit was banned and, with its banning, came a fall in pay and a rebellion against the ban. It remained in use until the middle of the twentieth century.
Suddenly the smiling toothless men develop a poignancy. Maybe these two arthritic people ran that risk for their families; maybe they are sitting down because it is too painful for them to stand; maybe they dove down and picked this sponge off the sea bed years ago to exchange it for three square meals.
The things they were looking for were not golden and lovely as they are on our bathroom shelves, but black and rock solid and in need of special treatment at sea as well as on land. It was a process involving purifying, beating, washing, drying and pressing on board, and repeating the same process on land, to be left with a black sponge. But who wants a black sponge? They are then dipped in potassium permanganate and sulphuric acid to reveal a beautiful golden colour and soft feel.
So the natural sponge that you buy on Kalymnos has been tainted by chemicals, but the tradition is still there. The boats still go out and the toothless men are still there working on their sponges. Surely the sponges will run out sooner or later? Sponges do not live if they are untouched – the harvest actually replenishes the numbers. But please leave these people to it…why would anyone want to mess with the tradition of the sponge and these people’s history?