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Most sponge that we use today are synthetic, but in the old days sponge was collected from the sea bed. Some of the finest-quality sea sponge, a jelly-like marine creature with a body full of pores, can be found in the warm waters of southeastern Mediterranean. The ancient Greeks knew about these animals and their usefulness in scrubbing and cleaning purposes, and for maintaining personal hygiene. Sponge was also used for padding helmets and for filtering water.

The entire Greek sponge industry was centered on a string of islands in the Aegean Sea, called the Dodecanese Islands. For generations, young men and their fathers and their forefathers earned their living by diving for sponges. Traditionally, the sponge was gathered from the ocean floor by ‘skin diving’, or free diving without clothes and without using any breathing apparatus. Sponge divers would dive to the bottom of the sea on just a single breath of air, weighing their body down by a piece of flat stone that weighed up to 15 kg. The heavy stone would drag the naked bodies quickly to the bottom. The presence of sponge on the dive site would have been already verified by the crew above using a cylindrical viewing pipe with a glass bottom. Once the diver reached the floor, he would cut loose as many sponges as he could and stuff them into a mesh bag. A skilled diver could dive up to depths of 30 meters and stay under water for 3 to 5 minutes.

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Display of natural sponges for sale on Kalymnos in Greece. Photo credit: Tom Oates

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