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Spongers struggle to rescue their fading tradition

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

It had been a long time, 15 years, since the captain had been out to sea.

But when the new divers finally arrived, all the way from Greece, George Billiris could not help himself. He checked with his wife and his cardiologist, and he went back out on the boat.

It's not about him, he will tell you over and over. He is trying to save the sponge industry from extinction by bringing experienced divers to a town starved for them.

The divers arrived this fall, and everything about their visit has been difficult.

But when Billiris took the divers out on the boat, he found the sea just the way he remembered it _ the same unrelenting weather, the same golden sponge, and the same kind of men. Men like himself, who remember the old ways.

They went out on the St. Nicholas III, the boat Billiris' father and grandfather built, the first boat he ever went out on, at age 14. That was more than 60 years ago.

Billiris and the Greek divers were supposed to stay out 10 days. But they were gone more than three weeks. He called his wife, Beverley, from somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I'm loving it," he said. "I'm home."

She had to smile.

"Stay out there, baby," she told him. And he did.

Out there, the sponge business is still simple. The sponge is money growing on the bottom of the ocean. It belongs to whoever finds it.

On land, as Billiris was reminded as soon as he returned to the docks, it's gotten more complicated than that.

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Things have changed because men have changed. For years now, men like Billiris have been hard to find.

"The old-timers are all gone," he said. "I'm the old-timer now. It hurts to say it."

Hardly anyone wants to battle that water anymore _ the long, lonely trips, the sweat and stench of it. The sea is full of sponges, but there are no divers left to bring them ashore.

It is a lonely, dirty, dangerous job. To do it right, divers must stay gone for months, work daybreak to dark and dive in deep water where the danger is greatest. The smell of rotting sponge is overwhelming, even with the sea air blowing over the deck.

It is a life that fathers in Tarpon Springs once taught to their sons. Mothers taught daughters, too, to live for months without their men and not to mind.

Divers battled for bragging rights until it crippled them. They were the center of the community. The boat depended on the diver. The town depended on the boats.

"In our day, we were proud people, very proud," Billiris said. "It was in everything. The way we walked. The way we talked. The way we smiled. Everything."

But now, sons and daughters have other options. So where dozens of sponge boats once docked four across, now five or six boats work the waters. Tourists still come to Tarpon Springs, but a lot of the sponges they buy come from the Bahamas. The industry that built the town a century ago is dying.

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For men like Billiris it is a hard thing to watch. He is 75, a former sponge boat captain, now a successful international sponge merchant and a well-connected businessman.

He might not live to see the sponge business thrive again. But he can't let himself leave it to die. It will take a whole new generation of divers to save it. So it is up to the old generation to bring in the new.

So Billiris and other members of the local sponge association, working with and against the rest of the sponge community, with and against governmental regulations and bureaucracy and weather and time, went back to the place where the first divers came from _ all the way to Greece _ to find a few more men like themselves.

The idea was simple _ a few more seasoned divers can help train new divers, share methods from the Mediterranean and relieve the burden on the boats already working.

From the beginning, they were working against the current.

It took four years to get a grant. Billiris' wife, City Commissioner Beverley Billiris, lobbied for it in Tallahassee. Then the divers got tied up with immigration hassles until only four were still willing to make the trip and the sponge season was nearly over.

At the docks, that left boat captains fighting for time. They were supposed to share the divers, but now there were too few to go around.

Then, the divers were uncomfortable with the foreign waters and the shrinking season.

Billiris took them out on his boat to help them get acclimated, but when he kept them out too long the other boat owners got increasingly upset.

The state grant required the divers to work several boats, not just one. Now Billiris wasn't following the program or the rules.

Worse, the divers did not want to split up. They wanted to go out on Billiris' boat again, he said. The $15,000 grant was at risk.

The day they were supposed to leave, the weather was perfect and clear. But Billiris was at the center of a storm.

One day early this month, Billiris sat in a folding chair by the St. Nicholas III with his head in his hands, surrounded by other boat owners and divers, all of them arguing, mostly in Greek.

Boat owners spent money to prepare for the divers, and now they would not get to use them. They said Billiris was taking food from their mouths. They said he was using state money to fill his own pockets. Several said the divers should never have come at all.

"We want the program to work," said Jeff Love, president of the Sponge Associates of Florida, a group created to support the industry. "But it has to work under our rules."

Billiris doesn't care how the divers come, as long as they come. He wants to keep them happy so they will come again next year, and bring more.

He argued for the larger picture: how the tourist industry hinges on the sponge industry, and how profitable the sponge industry used to be.

The dock regulars have all heard this story, over and over.

"Those were different times, George," Love said.

In his lifetime, Billiris has seen the industry crest and fall several times. Once, 180 sponge boats tied up in Tarpon Springs. Then, in 1946, the sponge turned black with blight and died. Divers found work elsewhere. The father-to-son traditions were broken. There have some been good times since, but it has never been the same.

Now the sponges in the Gulf of Mexico are healthy, and the sponges in the Mediterranean are sick. World demand is eight times the supply. This ought to work, Billiris said. They had to make it work. There is no backup plan.

All the controversy sometimes makes the old captain wish that he could walk away. But most of the time, he wishes he could go back.

"Ah," he said. "You had to live it. It was a hell of a life."

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The spongers know that the season is almost over. Cold weather is pushing its way in.

So, overnight, they decided they would not waste the last days bickering on the docks.

They struck a compromise, and they convinced the Greek divers to split up.

The divers don't say what changed their minds. They don't speak English. But when asked whether they will come here again, one of them nodded.

One of the divers had already gone home to wait for next year.

One of the divers agreed to go out with Sunny Sebaugh, the 70-year-old owner of the Suzy Sea. Sebaugh was supposed to get two divers. He has decided to take what he can get, and not complain.

"Everything's fine," he said smiling, as divers hustled around his boat, getting ready to leave. "Everyone is a happy family."

He took his regular divers and his big poodle, named Sponger. And he took Ed Silver, a contractor from Holiday, who just might be part of the next generation of sponge divers, if he sticks it out.

For Silver, 49, there is no guaranteed wage, no health insurance, no paid vacation, no overtime.

But, there is a mile marker out past the end of the docks. "And once you get past that," Silver said, "this all disappears."

When he met Sebaugh, he had never been diving before. He had never been on a boat.

He worked two seasons as a deckhand. Now, he is learning to walk on the bottom of the ocean. At night, the waves rock him to sleep.

The days are hard and long. "But then you take a minute and watch the sun drop in the ocean," he said. "You watch the sun come up with a cup of coffee. I feel good when I come back."

He is half Greek, so maybe sponging is his heritage. But his family and friends think he is crazy anyway.

"They don't understand," he said.

With that, the big poodle jumped on the boat, and the divers followed.

As for Billiris, he got to make one more trip, too.

Farther down the docks, he and his men readied the boat. He took two divers and a trainee.

They planned to stay out a week or so. But the smart thing is to stay gone as long as the weather is good.

"Because after good weather comes bad," he said.

This could be the last trip of the season, and no one can say what next season will bring.

So Billiris and Sunny and all the divers had their pictures taken, for history.

Then, finally, they headed out.

They wished for good weather, and calm water.