Visit Tarpon SpringsJanuary 2023
Discover the Sponge Docks of Tarpon Springs
By Visit Florida staff
For years Tarpon Springs ruled as the Sponge Capital of the World. At Spongeorama and The Sponge Factory, both located on Dodecanese Boulevard, you can watch a free movie about sponging history.
Sponges are the skeletons of small sea creatures, brought up by hand from the ocean bottom. In the late 1800s, spongers working the Florida Straits and Gulf of Mexico came from Cuba, The Bahamas or Key West. Using small boats, one man rowed while another looked into the water with a glass-bottomed bucket. When he spotted a sponge, he’d hook it with a long pole.
On June 18, 1905, a diver was lowered into the water and walked for the first time on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, trailing oxygen bubbles and carrying a short rake to hook sponges. To those in the small hooker boats bobbing on the water’s surface, mechanized diving must have seemed like an alien invasion.
In 1908 the Sponge Exchange started as a storage and auction site for sponges. Sponges are still sold there and at new specialty stores and boutiques. Bring a camera to take a picture of friends next to a replica of a great white shark.
What may be the oldest tourist attraction on the west coast of Florida is near the Sponge Exchange. George Billiris, owner of St. Nicholas Boat Lines, said his father, Michael Billiris, started giving boat rides in 1924 to tourists during January and February when rich winter visitors were in residence.
Today, the Anclote River along the sponge docks of Tarpon Springs churns with possibilities for boat rides. St. Nicholas Boat Line continues the family tradition, going out daily for half-hour cruises with a demonstration of traditional Tarpon Springs sponge diving.
Tarpon Springs has the largest Epiphany celebration in the United States. You can admire a statue of a boy holding up the cross in a courtyard next to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Pinellas Avenue. The church was built as a replica of St. Sophia in Constantinople. Open to visitors, it has 23 stained glass windows of amazing beauty.
A city trolley goes back and forth between downtown and the sponge docks of Tarpon Springs. Both parts of town are meant for walking. Parking lots are numerous, and all-day parking is less than $5.
Train buffs will want to visit the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Depot built in 1909 on Tarpon Avenue. The old railroad line has a new use as the Pinellas Trail, 38 miles of paved trail running from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs and used by walkers and bicyclists.