Sponging was discovered in the Florida Keys in the 1820s. Native fishermen would often find sponges washed up onto the shores after storms. The first catches were only used for the local domestic trade.
With the discovery of rich, thriving sponge beds in the remote back water country of the Florida Keys, an industry was born. Most of the sponge beds were in about 20 feet of water. Fishermen used small boats, called “hook boats” to navigate to the sponge beds. The most common method of harvesting them was with the use of a long pole with a three or four pronged rake at its end. The fishermen, known as “hookers,” used the rake to pry the sponge loose and retrieve it from the waters below.
While the waters of Key West were abundant with rich sponge beds yielding high quality sponge, the remote location of the island made it difficult and expensive to get the product to market.
In 1849 the first shipment of sponges left Key West and arrived in New York City. The softness and wide variety of the Key’s sponges were an instant success. This began an island industry that lasted 50 years.
At its peak Key West held a monopoly on the sponge trade in the United States, by employing 1,200 men working on 350 “hook boats”. It produced an average of 2,000 tons a year which yielded the economy $750,000 a year.
In 1904 Greek immigrants came to the Keys to pursue sponging. They used primitive diving suits with heavy lead boots which allowed them to reach sponges in deeper water. Local fishermen were skeptical of this practice and correctly believed that walking on the sponge beds with the lead weighted boots damaged the young sponges and reduced future harvests. A combination of the use of the diving suits, overfishing and the spread of a deadly sponge fungus brought the island sponging industry to an end.
New, healthy sponge beds were later discovered off the coast of central Florida and the industry moved to Tarpon Springs, Florida where it still thrives today.
Check out the 1953 movie, Beneath the 12 Mile Reef. It is a Hollywood “B” movie starring a very young Robert Wagner. The highlight of the movie is that it was one of the first movies to be filmed in CinemaScope. It was shot in Key West and is a fictionalized story of the sponging industry.