By Jackie Humphries Smith
WHEN THE BELLS IN THE AGIOS NIKOLAOS CHURCH TOWER ERUPT WITH A RHYTHMIC CLANGING THESE DAYS
it is to call the faithful in the bustling port town to prayer. But there was a time – not that many decades ago – when their thunderous ringing also announced the successful return of the island’s sponge diving fleet. We are on the Greek island of Kalymnos, the island of the Sponge Divers.
Beginning back in the 1800’s and continuing for more than a century, sponge diving brought fame and prosperity to this mountainous Dodecanese Island in the southeastern Aegean Sea. Although the industry’s heyday is long past, it continues to play an important role on this island just off the coast of Turkey.
Kalymnos, with a population of about 16,000, is situated between the islands of Kos and Leros. Occupied by the Italians until 1947, the island is known as Calino in Italian and Kilimni in Turkish. Tourism has become a major economic driver here after the island’s suitability for rock climbing was discovered by Italian climbers in the 1990’s. Since then, sport climbing has taken the island’s popularity to new heights.
Considered one of the best rock-climbing destinations in the world, more than 10,000 adventure sports enthusiasts are drawn to its approximate 3,400 sport climbing routes annually. Sport climbing is a type of rock climbing in which routes are fixed with permanent anchors (bolts). Ropes are attached to the climber and to the anchor for safety.
SPONGE DIVING LEGACY
While tourism might be overtaking it, the sponge industry continues to be celebrated and revered on the island. Statues honoring the divers and the sea decorate the harbor walk. Several of the town’s tourist accommodations are named for the sponge and honor its history in their décor.
The Nautical and Folklore Museum features extensive displays paying tribute to the treacherous industry and the courageous islanders who were a part of it. An annual Sponge Week Celebration takes place the week after Easter. Sponges of every shape and size are sold in retail and wholesale stores. The sponge industry’s legacy remains vibrant, and its story continues to be told by residents whose families are a part of its history.
After a lifetime of diving for sponges, 81-year-old Antonis Kampourakis is content these days to sell them from his boat moored on the bustling waterfront in Pothia town, the island’s commercial port. His sun-leathered face breaks into a smile when he points to photos of himself as a diver. He began diving at age 24 and continued for a half century.
Read the full article in Issue 19
More articles by Jackie Humphries Smith