Turkey is the most important producer of bathing sponges. In May, the men of the villages around Bodrum set sail on their narrow boats along the western coast for five months to look for sponges.
During the last few years, Turkey has developed into the biggest producer of sponges world wide - ahead of Cuba, Mexico, the Antilles Islands, the United States of America and Greece.
Turkey exports about 15 tons of sponges ever year. Until the effects of tourism and a fungus epidemic in 1986 killed lots of sponges, diving for them was the most important job for the fishermen and their families in the Bodrum area.
Today they prefer to rent out their boats for small trips for tourists instead of sending young divers into the ocean for "sünger", as sponges are called in Turkey. Even so, a lot of young boys start diving for sponges, like their fathers did, at the age of fourteen. For about 3000 years, the people on this peninsula made their living from sponges. The ancient Greeks used sponges for bathing, for cleaning tables and floors, and also to make their suits of armour a little smoother. The Romans used them for painting, fixing them to long pieces of wood to reach high places and sometimes they even used them to store drinking water.
Gold from the bottom of the ocean
"Gold from the bottom of the ocean" could be the name of these valuable sponges. They are porous animals of geometric shape which grow between 10 and 70 metres deep on stones in the ocean. World-wide, there are known to be more than 5000 different sorts of sponge living in the salty waters of the oceans. Only a few are able to live in the fresh water of lakes and rivers. Sponges vary in size, growing up to one metre in diameter.
"The best sponges have big holes and, after being squeezed, return to their original shape and size", explains Selim Dincer. He should know because he is a specialist in sponges working at the Bodrum Institute for Marine Biology.
A sponge diving team normally consists of five divers, one leader on the boat and a cook. They all belong to the team, living and working on a boat called as tirandil, built in the Bodrum area with a framework of wood and about 10 metres in length. One session of diving normally lasts about two to three hours. The equipment consists of a diving suit, a mask and, most important of all, the pump. Below the water, the diver breathes through a pipe called as nargile (water pipe) or "hookah". With the help of this equipment, divers can reach depths of 150 metres. But the deeper the diver goes, the bigger the risk to the diver, which can lead to long-term injury and even the death of a young diver. When someone is suffering from this problem, they need to be got into a decompression chamber within 24 hours.
Quite often sponge divers find wrecks of old ships or ancient amphoras. "When they cut a living sponge, it looks more or less like a glued piece of leather, much different than the sponge we know in our bathroom." So says an American author of books about marine biology when writing about animals without a spinal column. When freshly brought home from the sea, sponges look like stomach sacks.
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