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Live updates: Teen diver Alexander Makris grabs the cross in Tarpon Springs

The annual religious tradition, with its chilly dive for the cross, closes out the Christmas season. Restricted last year because of COVID-19, it’s open to the public again.
Alexander Makris, 16 of New Port Richey, comes up with the white cross Thursday during the annual cross dive in Spring Bayou, part of the Tarpon Springs Epiphany celebration.
Alexander Makris, 16 of New Port Richey, comes up with the white cross Thursday during the annual cross dive in Spring Bayou, part of the Tarpon Springs Epiphany celebration. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 6|Updated Jan. 6

Considered the largest Epiphany celebration in the Western Hemisphere, commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ, the Tarpon Springs event traditionally draws more than 20,000 spectators. The archbishop casts a white cross into the waters of Spring Bayou and nearly 70 young men jump from boats in a competition to retrieve it. The center of the celebration is St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

Photo gallery

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2:35 p.m. The return of the dove bearer

Dove bearer Katerina Lecourezos, 16, releases a dove over Spring Bayou during the 116th annual Epiphany celebration Thursday in Tarpon Springs.
Dove bearer Katerina Lecourezos, 16, releases a dove over Spring Bayou during the 116th annual Epiphany celebration Thursday in Tarpon Springs. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Katerina Lecourezos, a 16-year-old junior at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, restarted the tradition of dove bearer during the day’s Epiphany celebration.

There was no dove bearer in the pandemic-hobbled 2021 celebration, for the first time since World War II. The dove represents the Holy Spirit in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Katerina led the group of 65 boys to Spring Bayou with a white dove in hand, releasing the bird just before the archbishop tossed the white cross into the water for them to retrieve.

She joins 83 members of Saint Nicholas cathedral’s choir to serve as dove bearer, dating back to Costas Tsimpikas in 1920. A full list of past bearers can be found here.

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2:15 p.m. A final count: 65 divers made the leap

Organizers expected 68 divers and ended up with 65 during the cross dive Thursday in Spring Bayou, part of the annual Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs.

In past years, the event is followed be the festive Glendi celebration with food, dance and drink. But a lack of volunteers scuttled this year’s event.

Still, the celebration continues with the Epiphany Lecture Series 7 p.m. Friday at St. Nicholas cathedral, the Epiphany Golf Tournament on Saturday at Innisbrook, and the Epiphany Ball 6:30 p.m. Saturday, honoring past divers and dove bearers at the St. Nicholas Community Center.

All events are open to the public.

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1:15 p.m. “It’s a dream come true!”

Alexander Makris, emerging from Spring Bayou with the white cross, was competing in the annual Tarpon Springs Epiphany event for the first time.
Alexander Makris, emerging from Spring Bayou with the white cross, was competing in the annual Tarpon Springs Epiphany event for the first time. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

A swarm of dripping fellow divers hoisted Alexander Makris onto their shoulders as they chanted the Greek cheer of faith, “Axios, axios!”

The 16-year-old New Port Richey native smiled broadly after retrieving the white cross they all had sought during a short but spirited dive into the chilly waters of Spring Bayou.

As he headed from the water to the steps of St. Nicholas cathedral a few blocks away, Alexander shouted, “It’s a dream come true!”

His father, Nicholas Makris, who with wife Andrea is from New Jersey, said he was shocked to see his son emerge with the cross in hand.

Dad had high hopes this morning but considered it a tough task given that it’s his son’s first year of eligibility for the dive.

But among a field of 58 competitors, the River Ridge High School student prevailed, bringing glory and blessings home to his family and the church they attend, St. George Orthodox Church in New Port Richey, Nicholas Makris said.

”I don’t even know what to say right now,” he said. “We’re just so proud. I lived up north when I was a teenager and had nothing like this. Him grabbing that cross will forever be one of the greatest moments of my life.”

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1 p.m. A leap, a splash, and Alexander Makris has the cross

The New Port Richey boy, 16, emerged from Spring Bayou holding the iconic white cross, besting some 67 competitors in the annual Tarpon Springs Epiphany celebration. Stay tuned for more about him!

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12:40 p.m. Poised for the Spring Bayou cross dive

The teenage boys are rearing to run into Spring Bayou and security isn’t letting spectators nearby move around much. In the distance, there is drumming and the sounds of Tarpon Springs High School marching band

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12:10 p.m. Why do only boys dive for the cross?

The Tarpon Springs Greek community’s Epiphany celebration marks the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit ascended from heaven in the form of a dove and God said, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased,” said celebration coordinator Michael Kouskoutis.

Thus, said Kouskoutis, boys but not girls jump into the waters of Spring Bayou — in a competition to retrieve a white cross — to represent Jesus, a male, and the waters of baptism.

That and the fact that with 68 boys thrashing around, the competition is physically rough, he said.

This explanation doesn’t satisfy all those who would like to see the tradition expanded to include girls.

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11:30 a.m. For the divers, visibility is low

Lt. Stuart Spoede of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is part of the dive support team at Spring Bayou.
Lt. Stuart Spoede of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is part of the dive support team at Spring Bayou. [ JOSH FIALLO | Times ]

Lt. Stuart Spoede of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is a part of the dive team today. Their job is to make sure none of the teenage cross divers drowns and there’s nothing harmful is in the water.

The depth of the water changes with the tides but, as of now, the water is 10 feet deep beneath the dinghies and just 3 feet deep where the cross will be thrown. Visibility appears to be low.

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11:15 a.m. Through generations, the dive has changed

Two generations of cross divers wait outside St. Nicholas cathedral for the procession to Spring Bayou on Thursday morning: Nicholas Manglis, 14, and father John Michael Manglis, 42.
Two generations of cross divers wait outside St. Nicholas cathedral for the procession to Spring Bayou on Thursday morning: Nicholas Manglis, 14, and father John Michael Manglis, 42. [ ANAS | Times ]

At 9 a.m., Nicholas Manglis was among a handful of divers dutifully awaiting their procession to Spring Bayou, where they receive a blessing from the archbishop. Mangalis hands were clasped as if in prayer as he sat next to his dad, John Michael Manglis, on a bench outside St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

But the 17-year-old Tarpon High School student had his eyes fixed on a bronze statue of a young diver holding a cross triumphantly in the air. Mangalis didn’t dive last year — there was some mixup with his baptismal records, he said — so he wasn’t expecting the nerves he felt when he woke up early Thursday.

His father, 42, a sandblaster and painter, has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Epiphany. He points out some of the divers from years past who are in attendance, including one — rumored to be the model for the bronze statue — who’s posing for pictures with his son.

”Today’s cross dive is nothing like when I was a kid,” John Michael Manglis said. “Back then, there was no Instagram or Twitter. We all just hung out with each other, diving off the docks and pretending to be spongers like our dad and grandad and great-grandad.

“Everyone knew who got the cross each year, and why that year they deserved it — why it was meant to be them.

Much of the sponging and fishing industry died out here long ago, sending some families packing for friendlier waters in North Carolina and turning those who stayed into painters or sandblasters. It was a working-class life back then. It wasn’t unusual to see boys diving in cutoff Jean shorts, or see boys emerge from the water with broken clavicles and cuts on their stomachs.

”Today it’s a totally different game, totally different world, but it still means something,” he said as he listened to his son chat with friends about a boy who bought his diving trunks from Burberry.

When Manglis’ son got his white epiphany shirt at Wednesday night’s divers meeting, he held it up, pressed it against his face and began to sob. His aunt and mother were quick to comfort him — don’t worry, we can get it altered if it needs to be fixed, it’ll look great!

But he wasn’t upset, the proud father said. He was happy.

”He told us, ‘I just feel like I’ve already been blessed. It’s real now. It’s actually happening.’”

Manglis’ grandfather retrieved the cross one year, and later his brother. So did his son’s godfather. Manglis never did — a disappointment, sure, but not enough to take away the buoyant feeling as you jump into the chilly spring water, he said.

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The 68 teenage boys who will take part in the Tarpon Springs Epiphany cross dive get their marching orders Thursday morning.
The 68 teenage boys who will take part in the Tarpon Springs Epiphany cross dive get their marching orders Thursday morning. [ ANASTASIA DAWSON | Times ]

10:10 a.m. Roll call for cross divers

It’s roll call time for Epiphany divers. But first some reminders from organizer Michael Kouskotis from St. Nicholas cathedral: Walk reverentially — no running. Only 10 teens to a boat, no dogpiling in just one or two dinghies. Stay in the boat. “If the boat sinks, you stay in it.” Moms look alarmed

Ioannis Mzaronias, 16, may be the only diver who wears glasses when he’s not in the water. Will he use contacts today? Goggles aren’t allowed.

“I won’t do it with contacts,” he said. “I’ll just feel around and trust the Lord to be my sight.”

• • •
His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, lights a candle Thursday morning after arriving to perform the liturgy at St. Nicholas cathedral.
His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, lights a candle Thursday morning after arriving to perform the liturgy at St. Nicholas cathedral. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
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9:20 a.m. Water too cold in Greece!

Sixty-eight teenage boys will take part in today’s mid-day cross dive at Spring Bayou, organizers said. The water temperature, like the air temperature, is expected to be a chilly 69 degrees.

What’s the criteria? Participants must be 16 to 18, baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church and in “good standing” with the church. Far fewer dive this day in Greece, locals say — the water is just too cold!

• • •

8:55 a.m. Preparing for a sacred celebration

Worshippers file into St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Thursday morning for Epiphany services.
Worshippers file into St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Thursday morning for Epiphany services. [ JOSH FIALLO | Times ]

People are beginning to take their seats inside St. Nicholas cathedral, where Orthros and liturgy services are taking place. Last year, capacity was limited inside because of coronavirus concerns. There are no restrictions this year.

Epiphany is when the Greek community celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the river Jordan by John the Baptist.

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8:50 a.m. The ‘Greekest’ city of all

Tarpon Springs has more Greeks per capita than any other U.S. city, staff writer Anastasia Dawson reports as she prepares to cover today’s Epiphany celebration. The local extravaganza dates back to 1906.

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8:30 a.m. Spreading the word in Greek

The Tarpon Springs celebration draws the attention of a New York City-based online news site for the Greek community. Tweet translation: “All of #TarponSprings on the “foot” for #Thanksgiving - The boats were sanctified.”

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8 a.m. Arriving at cathedral for Orthros

Nikoletta Kavouklis, 37, at left, arrives with her children for Epiphany observances at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs.
Nikoletta Kavouklis, 37, at left, arrives with her children for Epiphany observances at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times ]

Families have arrived for Orthros, the service that starts the day’s Epiphany observances at St. Nicholas cathedral.

“It’s a day for our faith, for our family, for everything,” said Nikoletta Kavouklis, 37, who came with children Angelica, Emmanouela and Hatalambos. “It’s something we wait for each year.”

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6:40 a.m. Public welcome, no restrictions

People are up and preparing for the start of the day’s Epiphany celebration at 8 a.m. in Tarpon Springs.

Epiphany was celebrated last January under COVID-19 restrictions, but this year anyone can attend and no masks are required. Mask mandates have been lifted by the Direct Archdiocesan District of the Greek Orthodox church, which directs members to follow state and local health and safety guidelines.

That means no restrictions on how many people crowd St. Nicholas cathedral and the banks of Spring Bayou. Organizers were wondering whether attendance will return to re-pandemic levels.

“This year is like a breath of fresh air,” spokesperson and organizer Johanna Gatzoulis said. “After such a horrible year with COVID, everyone is just so excited to have something to celebrate and so thankful we’re able to do so without restrictions.”

One feature of the celebration missing again this year is Glendi — a day-long festival of Greek dancing, music and food. Scrapped last year because of the pandemic, this year’s Glendi was canceled because there weren’t enough volunteers.

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6:30 a.m. Cool weather, chilly water in forecast

Forecasts call for a temperature of about 60 in Tarpon Springs for 8 a.m. and the start of the day’s Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs. It should warm to 69 by mid-day, when teen boys jump into Spring Bayou to retrieve the white cross.

The boys can expect the same chilly temperature in the water — 69 degrees. There’s no rain in the forecast during daylight hours Thursday.

The festivities begin at 8 a.m. with the morning service known as Orthros at St. Nicholas cathedral, 36 N Pinellas Ave., followed by a liturgy at 9 a.m. and the blessing of the waters.

Rowboats are spread out across Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs on Wednesday in anticipation of the annual cross dive.
Rowboats are spread out across Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs on Wednesday in anticipation of the annual cross dive. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
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