TARPON SPRINGS — Early Friday afternoon, 61 teenage boys of the Greek Orthodox faith will walk barefoot along a five-block-long procession from this city's spiritual headquarters to the banks of Spring Bayou.
They'll jump into the chilly water and swim out to 10 waiting dinghies arced in a semi-circle, where they'll scramble aboard and wait for the coveted white cross to be tossed into the bayou.
In a celebration symbolizing the baptism of Jesus Christ, they'll jump into the bayou seeking the cross, which brings with it a special blessing.
Organizers and meteorologists said Wednesday they expect a beautiful day to greet the throngs of tourists and residents who will line the shores of the bayou for the annual event. But the water will likely be a bit brisk.
"It'll be beautiful. The water will be like an iceberg, but the weather will be beautiful, with temperatures probably around 65 to 68 degrees and partly cloudy," said Bay News 9 chief metrologist Mike Clay.
On Wednesday, a Tarpon Springs police diver measured the water temperature at 70 degrees, Police Chief Bob Kochen said. But Kochen and Clay said they expect the water temperature to drop a bit after this week's unseasonably cool temperatures.
The water will likely be "well into the 60s," Clay said.
The procession from St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral will begin about 12:30 p.m., with the dive expected to take place about 1 p.m. after the release of a white dove representing the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Dive co-coordinator Michael Kouskoutis said he wasn't worried about Friday's water temperature, because the forecast pales in comparison to the unseasonably frigid weather during 2010's celebration. That year, four divers were treated for exposure to the cold after diving into the bayou, which had a surface water temperature of 49 degrees.
"It will never be as cold as it was two years ago," Kouskoutis said. "So I'm not as concerned about the weather because the air temperature is supposed to be nice."
Several manatees were visible Wednesday morning in the spring-fed bayou, where the annual rite of passage takes place.
Tarpon residents have long admired the beauty of the large marine mammals that flock to the city's bayou, especially during colder weather.
Kochen, who spearheaded city efforts to grant additional protections to manatees in the bayou when he was a police captain, said he didn't expect any inconvenience for the divers — or the slow-moving sea cows that tend to shy away from commotion.
"We've never experienced an issue," he said.
Still, the creatures could provide a unique backdrop for the 106th annual dive in Epiphany City.
"It would be a first-time event if one of the manatees caught the cross, now wouldn't it?" Kochen quipped.
Rita Farlow can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.