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Maritime workers share their wisdom on Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks on Sunday

By Piper Castillo
Harvested sponges dry on the deck of the Anastasi, a traditional sponge boat.DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

TARPON SPRINGS — Taso Karistinos’ work aboard his boat Anastasi could seem a bit anachronistic. As a sponge diver in the Greek tradition, he hand-cuts living sponges and harvests them from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. When the water is clear and the wind not too strong, he will head offshore for days at a time, as far north as Apalachicola, as far south as the Florida Keys, spending days in a wet suit and breathing air through a hose attached to a scuba mask.

When he first came to Florida, it seemed the ocean had a limitless supply of sponges and the schools of fish swimming near them, countless.

"Like I used to see schools and schools of grunt, and now I don’t see any,’’ he said.

"Back in 1972, I would go out at night on a boat, and when I’d look at land, I’d see maybe one light here, one light there. Now, you go out at night and it looks like New York City,’’ he said.

But no matter the unpredictability of his occupation or challenges like Red Tide or storms, Karistinos has made it work.

"I started diving in Greece when I was a boy. I got a spear gun when I was 12, and I’ve been diving ever since,’’ he said.

Karistinos, a Tarpon Springs celebrity with his old-salt scowl and stern, Greek accent, will be one of about 14 individuals showing off their maritime skills at Tarpon Springs’ Gulf Maritime Festival on Sunday. The free program is being held in conjunction with "The Way We Worked, a Museum on Main Street’’ exhibit created by the Smithsonian Institution.

Tarpon Springs, one of the last downtown working waterfronts in the state, was one of the few cities in Florida selected for the exhibit, and with the selection came a grant of $5,000 to be used on supporting programming.

Twelve men and two women will share their know-how on how they made a living either on top of the water, in the water or beside the water.

"We have held maritime events like this before, but we do not do it every year due to funding,’’ explained Tina Bucuvalas, curator of arts and historical resources, who is giving each of the participants a stipend from the Smithsonian grant. "We consider these people experts in the field they work in.?… ’’

Along with Karistinos, other participants include Nicholas Toth, a diving helmet maker; Bob Pitt, a boat builder; and Wally Ericson, a former dredger and owner of Ericson Marine. Although the field of seaside workers historically was dominated by men, female representatives include Julie Russell of Pelican Point Seafood and Rusty Bellies Restaurant and Karen Bell of Star Fish Co. and Dockside Restaurant.

Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.