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"Naked Divers, Satan's Machine and the Age of Excess"
Hope you enjoy it.
‘Greeks and the sea interpenetrate’, the Greek saying goes. And from ancient times young men of the Dodecanese have penetrated the sea in search of natural sponges, ‘the golden fleece of the sea’.
Until the 1860’s the Greek sponge divers used the ancient and proud technique (what our grandfathers called the first technique) of ‘naked diving’. Today we know it as ‘breath-hold diving’.
Wearing only a net bag slung around his waist, and holding a flat marble stone of 15 Kgs in weight, the diver would shoot down an inclined plane jutting from the side of the boat into the water. He would then plummet to a depth of 70 meters, using the stone as a rudder to steer through his descent. Called a ‘bell stone’ on the island of Symi and a ‘trigger stone’ on the island of Kalymnos because of its function (it triggered the dive), the diving stone was a prized possession handed down from father to son. The stone had a hole in one rounded end where a line was attached to the boat. On the bottom, if successful, a naked diver could gather one or two sponges in his net bag before tugging on the line, signalling he had to be pulled back to air. Like a sea bird, he would plunge and rise up through a twelve-hour working day, taking neither food nor water, apart from a little bread and coffee at daybreak.
In 1913, a naked diver from Symi rescued the lost anchor of the ‘Regina Margherita’, an Italian warship on its maiden voyage. He dove to a depth of 80 meters on a single breath of air and tied a rope around the anchor. Italian records show the dive at 3’35”.
In 1863 the Industrial Revolution arrived in the Dodecanese and brought with it swift and huge prosperity won at too terrible a price. The deep-sea diving suit was introduced into the sponge diving industry, and first on the island of Symi. Ironically, the suit – which the divers swiftly came to call ‘Satan’s machine’ – was introduced at a place of incomparable beauty, Symi’s harbour, perhaps being the most stunning in all of Greece.
The new suit allowed the diver to see, to remain underwater – it seemed – indefinitely, and to descend to previously unobtainable depths. Needless to say, it increased the diver’s productivity one hundred-fold. As the new deep-diving suits, the ‘skafandra’ came into wide use, casualties mounted in the sponge-fishing islands. Between 1866 and 1895, on the island of Kalymnos alone, 800 young men died off the bends and 200 more were paralysed!
The Industrial Revolution had created an ever-growing demand for soft and luxurious sponges for the great cities of Western Europe. Between 1880 and 1890, Symi was the wealthiest port in all the Mediterranean. In a single season, a merchant captain on Symi could earn an entire fortune, and the divers also shared in the bounty. A diver could earn two and half times in six months what a man of similar education could earn in a year. It was the Golden Age of sponge fishing. All rested on a foundation of ever increasing demand and the increasing sponge yield that came with the ‘skafandra’ – bigger boats, better pumps, and with the industrial organisation that now was brought to bear on the sponge fishing industry.
Each spring, in April and May, 300 sponge boats set sail from Kalymnos alone for the six month sponge fishing season that took divers along the coast of North Africa, from Alexandria to Benghazi. And the Kalymnian fleet was joined at sea by large sponge fishing fleets from other Dodecanese islands.
With the increased sponge yield came the destruction of the sponge beds – the harvesting exceeding the natural rate of re-growth. A vicious economic race had been set in motion- merchants demanded more sponges of the divers, and the divers demanded more of themselves in order to keep pace with the growing needs of a plentiful age that supplied silks and satins, Italian marble, French furniture, family portraits and exotic foodstuffs.
The known sponge beds thinned or were wiped out entirely. There was but one way, the way down. Down beyond 50 m, down beyond 70 where even the Aegean daylight grows dim and faint, down to the darkness that their new diving suits made possible for them. But their diving suits were not made for 70m – they were designed for 30!
The awful stories abound: diving boats set sail from Kalymnos right after the joy of Greek Easter with 20 divers on board and returned in the autumn with 10; or left Kalymnos in the spring with 10 divers and returned with none.
One Sunday in May 1895, the news came early that season of many deaths, the women of Kalymnos spontaneously performed the anathema against all merchant captains as women poured out from churches all over the island.
Violent protests against the ‘skafandra’ took place in Symi and Kalymnos, sometimes led by women. Intellectuals and theologians arrayed themselves against the merchants and the captains. Bans of fleeting duration were issued, one lasting two years. On the island of Symi the sponge industry had become known as ‘The tyranny’. When the sponge fleet arrived home in Symi in October – after been gone for six months – the women would race to the shore to greet the returning fleet; in solidarity all of the women dressed in black, not knowing who among them would be widows.
Since high casualty rates continued until the 70’s – long after divers knew about proper diving techniques – one often asks the question ‘why’?
It all had to do with a prepayment system, which created the pressure to dive with dangerous disregard to safety. Since the divers may never return, they could command 100 per cent of their six months’ wages in advance of sailing. Since so much money had exchanged hands, divers were under enormous pressure (both self imposed and by captains who now owned them to harvest enough sponge) to match the high prepayment they had received.
We know the causes – the list includes poor equipment, ignorance of proper diving techniques, greed, and the truth that these beatutiful rock strewn islands had only the sea to turn to and what the sea so reluctantly gives up.