TARPON SPRINGS — In the glory days of sponge diving, good times seemed almost preordained.
Money was plentiful. Young men of Greek ancestry descended on Tarpon Springs, where a good day's haul could bring in $1,000. Philip Fatolitis, who grew up here, once compared the 1930s in Tarpon Springs to the old West and fishermen to cowboys.
They celebrated a good haul with ouzo and cigars, fought over women, then wiped the blood on a sleeve and shook hands.
"No hard feelings. See you tomorrow," Mr. Fatolitis recalled a few years ago.
In a town still defined, at least symbolically, by its sponge-fishing industry, Mr. Fatolitis represented the last link to the oldest of old schools — the commercial hardhat divers.
The captain of several boats, he weathered hurricanes and pesky bull sharks, oncoming ships in the night and the dangers of walking underwater in a 170-pound suit of brass and copper.
But he could not change the economic currents that made his style of diving a thing of the past.
Mr. Fatolitis, who is believed to be the last of the hardhat sponge divers in Tarpon Springs, died Feb. 4 at Hospice House Brookside. He was 88.
"I would say Phil was the last of the hardhat divers, commercial divers that we had in the industry," said Ted Billiris, 83, a longtime merchant who runs the St. Nicholas Boat Line, a tourist boat centered on the history of sponge fishing. Tina Bucuvalas, the curator of arts and historical resources for the city of Tarpon Springs, said she also believes Mr. Fatolitis is the last.
Born Theophilos Fatolitis in Indiana, he was 3 when his family moved to Tarpon Springs. Mr. Fatolitis learned diving from his uncle, and was working on the boats from age 12.
At 16, he got his first shot at diving— and took home $1,200 for a day's work, a bonanza in 1939. Soon he was the captain of his own boat, gone two to three weeks at a time, fishing from Apalachicola to Key West.
"Phil was an excellent diver. Being a good sponge diver is almost like being a good biologist," said Billiris, who grew up with Mr. Fatolitis and has deep roots in the industry. "You have to tell by the bottom if it's the type of bottom that's productive for sponges. And you have to be energetic."
Indeed, divers had to be energetic enough to walk 2 to 3 miles in lead boots, groping for sponges that might or might not be visible.
"You don't find many people like that today, nor did you find many people like that back in those days that have the stamina and the desire," Billiris said.
Mr. Fatolitis served as a member of the Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams, a precursor to the Seals, during World War II, and in the Coast Guard, his family said. That training led him to innovate, becoming the first to incorporate depth-finding instruments to the local sponge fleet on his return, Billiris said.
Both during the war and after, Mr. Fatolitis endured many close calls and brushes with death. He narrowly escaped exploding mines that killed fellow frogmen, outwaited a circling bull shark for two hours, and nearly suffocated in 12 feet of water when an air compressor abruptly shut down.
Sometimes, he discovered the bodies of hardhat divers who weren't so lucky, their faces bloated. He shrugged off those dangers.
After the war, the sponging industry suffered in multiple ways ranging from red tide to European competition to the advent of synthetic sponges. Technology also moved away from hardhats, breastplates and lead shoes to other forms of diving.
Mr. Fatolitis got a contractor's license and began building houses, where his exacting nature once again served him well. Around 1975 he returned to sponge diving with more modern equipment, and pursued both careers for many years. In recent years, congestive heart failure curtailed his diving.
He also weathered change on the home front, marrying seven times. A couple of wives died, the others didn't work out. Alyssia Allen saw his personal ad in the early 1990s. He cooked her dinner. They married in 1994.
Three years ago, Mr. Fatolitis embarked on a final project — making model sponge-fishing boats out of white pine for each of his six children. Each one took months to construct — longer after he lost most of two middle fingers to a wood planer.
He died with only one boat unfinished.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]