A Brief History Of Sponge Diving In Bodrum

The sponge diving was once one of the most important branches of the marine activities and one of the most important means of subsistence in the Bodrum peninsula. Its past can be traced back at least three thousand years in the Aegean region. According to the existing sources, Homeros, the famous poet of the ancient Aegean, seems to be the first person who mentioned the sponges in his work. Another famous figure from the ancient Aegean, Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and scientist, is known to have done detailed work about the sponges. His statement in one of his discussions about the sponges that the best sponges came from the deep waters is usually taken as the evidence of sponge diving during the ancient times, since one would have to dive for these sponges for Aristotle to inspect them. Furthermore, that the sponges were used in various areas during this period according to the sources also shows that some people were diving for them. Therefore, one can say that the beginning of sponge diving goes back to the antiquity and even to the Bronze Age.

The sponge diving consists of two stages: locating the sponge and getting it. Until the advent of the tools replacing or aiding human breathing in the nineteenth century, the physical removal of the sponge from the seafloor used to be done either by tools such as hooks and harpoons from the surface or by naked divers using only their own breath to get to the sponge. As to locating the sponge, it was always done by human sight. In time, special boats with observation pipes enclosed on one side by a piece of glass were developed for locating the sponges. With the development of the surface air pumps and similar mechanisms in the nineteenth century, both locating and getting the sponge became the job of the diver, although there was still some form of surface scan by more experienced ones.

If one ignores today’s national boundaries and talks instead of the Aegean sponge diving or sponge fishing, the oldest  modern source seems to be the 1686 book of Thevenot, a French traveler and intellectual. In this book, Thevenot mentions the great importance the people of the island of Samos had attached to sponge diving. Beginning from 1800, various foreign publications and the Ottoman archives start talking about the significant amount of sponge diving activity in the southern Aegean islands, mostly in the Dodecanese islands. Among these islands that were within the borders of the Ottoman Empire at the time, Kalymnos and Symi were the most advanced sponge diving centers. The sponge divers were usually the Greeks living on these islands and their sponge fishing zones were anywhere in the Ottoman Empire where sponges grew. The foremost among them was the Aegean Sea. However, the sponge divers from these islands used to sail as far as Libya, Egypt, Syria and Cyprus. An article regarding Sponge Diving in the Ottoman Archipelago (the Aegean Sea) that appeared in a publication titledThe Technnologistin 1861 gives the number of the sponge boats in 1858 as 600, of which 254 were from Kalymnos and 190 were from Symi. According to the research of Haydar Çoruh, it was not only the Aegean entrepreneurs who were engaged in the sponge trade, but the entrepreneurs from the Syrian coast had more than 800 boats engaged in the sponge trade in 1866 as well.

The valid method of sponge fishing until 1860s was the naked diving done with boats using oars and sails. The British admiral and scientist T.A.B. Spratt gives a detailed description of sponge fishing and naked diving that he witnessed in the eastern side of the island of Crete in his book about the physical geography and archaeology of Crete written in 1865. According to the author, “the diver whose turn it is takes his seat on the deck of the vessel, at either the bow or stern, and, placing by his side a large flat slab of marble weighing about 25 lbs., to which is attached a rope of the proper length and thickness, he then strips and is left by his companions to prepare himself. (…) When .. he deems the fitting moment to have arrived, he seizes the slab of marble, and, after crossing himself and uttering a prayer, plunges with it (…). The stone is always held during the descent directly in front of the head, at arm’s length, and so as to offer as little resistance as possible; and by varying its inclination, it acts likewise as a rudder (…).” Once the diver is done with his task, he pulls the rope attached to him, and those above, “as soon as the signal indicative of his wish to return is felt, (…) commence hauling up the rope with great energy and earnestness, and in a way calculated to ensure the greatest expedition of ascent, since the overstay of a few seconds may be a point of life or death to the diver.”  According to the measurements Spratt took, these dives lasted between 90 and 120 seconds, the very best adding ten or fifteen seconds.

1865 was an important turning point in sponge diving. This was the year when the air pump aided sponge diving, what the Greeks callsekafandroand the Turks eitherforma dalgıçlığıormancorna, started making its appearance in the Ottoman seas. Augustus Siebe invented this particular diving suit in 1819. His suit was a metal helmet fitted to a waist level diving suit, later, in 1837, becoming a full-length suit, covering the whole body. With the air hose connected to the helmet, this suit enabled the diver to move freely under the water. During this time, the demand for the sponges was on the increase as well. Whereas the sponge had had a very limited use up until this time, it was now an industrial item. Moreover, in addition to the major buyers such as Britain and France, the United States entered the market right around this time as well. This was the beginning of the golden years of sponge diving.

During these years, there was another method of sponge fishing calledtarak,gangavaorkangava.Gangava was a kind of underwater rake, formed by a net attached to a big iron tube pulled by a boat. Not requiring any diving and divers, it collected whatever kind and size of sponge there was on its path. In the beginning, the sail was what the gangava boats used to pull the rake, but later, close to the mid-twentieth century, the engines were introduced.

Two major problems would arise following the worldwide increase in the sponge demand in 1860s. The first one was related to the air-pump-supported-diving itself. The problem was that although the new method was a major breakthrough, nobody really knew at the time anything about the necessity of decompression stops as one ascended to the surface. The divers, who had been conditioned for centuries to get to the surface of the water as fast as they could once they got the sponge, were now faced with a problem completely unknown to them. Faith Warn tells in her book titledBitterSeathat between 1886 and 1910, approximately ten thousand divers were lost and twenty thousand of them permanently disabled. The problem reached such a critical point that the women of Kalymnos lost their patience and demanded from the Ottoman sultan to ban the new method of diving. Eventually, the sultan banned it in 1882, but in four years, the new method diving was back again.

The second problem was, according to the Ottoman archives, the damage the uncontrolled sponge fishing was causing to the sponge fields. While with the naked diving the sponge fields had the chance to recuperate, the gangavas, the underwater rakes, and the divers, who were free to go around under the water for much longer periods now because of the new diving suit, had changed this at the expense of the sponge fields. However, the efforts of the Ottoman state, especially to prohibit the underwater rake, produced no positive results. Yet, the two world wars would accomplish what the legal means could not and limit the uncontrolled sponge diving, since the exports would plummet during this time. In fact, the damage caused by these two world wars would be so extensive that after the Second World War, all the sponge centers except Kalymnos would disappear. The closing of the sponge fields in Libya and the appearance of artificial sponge would affect Kalymnos sponge diving industry negatively as well. The sponge disease of 1986, afflicting nearly all the sponges in both the Mediterranean region and the Caribbean, would end the sponge diving completely.

The sponge diving in Bodrum, though a late starter in the history of sponge diving, did manage to catch the golden age of the sponge trade. It is possible that there was some naked sponge diving around the Bodrum peninsula even before the Republican era during the early period of the Aegean sponge diving and trading because of its proximity to Kalymnos, one of the major sponge diving centers. Yet, the existing sources indicate that both the gangava (the underwater rake) sponge fishing and the pump aided sponge diving, themancornadiving, started in the area after the Cretan immigrants settled in Bodrum in the early 20s. There were migrations from Crete before the 1923 deportation, but very few of the Cretans who came to the area during these migrations actually settled in Bodrum at this time. Most of them preferred the island of Cos. Those who settled in Cos when it was first under the Ottoman and later the Italian control seem to have lived here for twenty to twenty-five years, getting married and having children during their stay. However, when the conditions changed for the worse and the deportation between the new Turkish Republic and Greece did in fact occur, they had no choice but to settle in Bodrum. Some of these Cretans, especially those of marine origins had already entered the field of sea transportation during their stay in Cos, possibly being introduced to sponge diving as well. It is likely that some of the Cretans, especially those coming from the eastern section of Crete, were already familiar with sponge diving because of the rich sponge fields in this area. Even though it is not known exactly when and where these Cretan refugees began or were introduced to sponge diving, a little after their settlement in Bodrum, they started sponge diving using all the known methods at the time, that is, the naked diving, the underwater rake (gangava) and the air-pump-aided-diving (mancorna).

According to the existing testimonies, the first gangava boat was operated by Mustafa Denizaslanı in 1929, right after his resettlement in Bodrum. The boat was the sail-powered Süngeraltı. Two or three years later, İbrahim Doksan followed him with his boat named Akkuş. The third one using the underwater rake was Captain Ömer in hisskafitype of boat. Soon, with the participation of the locals as well, there were eight to ten gangava boats. There were naturally some developments in the gangava method of getting sponges. The most important of these various developments was the invention put into use by Gavur Ali (Karayel) in 1945. Up until that time, the gangava method of getting sponges was based on pulling a net attached to a straight iron rod. Gavur Ali came up with the idea of attaching iron wheels to this rod, which made the whole mechanism move much easier under the water. Another invention, though not very successful, was the idea of attaching car tires, thought by İsmail of Kalafat. However, too much bouncing caused by the car tires was a problem, so this invention was soon discarded. In the 50s, the engines started replacing the sails in the gangava boats. Right around this time, a ban was also introduced against gangava style of getting sponges. However, the intervention of Cevat Şakir, a famous writer living in Bodrum at the time, resulted in the cancellation of the ban, and the gangava boats continued until 1975, when the government introduced its ban for the second and last time.

In addition to the gangava method, the other two methods of getting sponges were also practiced in Bodrum a this time. One of them was the naked diving, practiced since antiquity. The naked diving was usually done by what were calledaynacıskiffs. The peculiarity of theaynacıskiffs was their straight stems. A long tube with a glass bottom was placed in front of it and the person who was given the task of spotting the sponges situated himself right behind the stem in the small cavity deep enough to hold his body while standing up. Holding the long tube with his hands, the spotter searched for sponges.  The diver was ready with his marble stone, waiting for a sponge to be located. Upon receiving a signal from the spotter, the diver would plunge into the water with his marble stone, navigating himself to the sponge with the help of the stone. He would cut it with his knife and come back to the surface. A depot skiff that stored the sponges that were gotten and the provisions for the trip later followed theseaynacıskiffs as well.

The other method was the air-pump-aided-diving, known asmancornain Turkish and sekafandro in Greek. Ali Cengiz, who would later become one of the biggest sponge merchants in Bodrum, used to hear many stories about sponge fishing and trading from his Greek customers coming to his barbershop in the 1920s. He was so taken by the stories that he went to the Greek island of Symi in order to learn everything about sponge fishing and trading. Finding a job working for a woman sponge trader there, he spent about seven months on this island. After learning nearly everything about the sponge trade, Ali Cengiz returned to Bodrum with themancornadiving equipment he bought while working there. Training his first divers on the beach of the Cretan quarter in the eastern section of the town, Ali Cengiz began the business of sponge fishing first with his father-in-law’s boat Göcek and later with his own boat Atilla built by Mehmet of Nami, the firsttirhandil ever built in Bodrum. In the beginning, the air pumps had two handles. Later, in 1940s, the pumps with one handle would appear.Mancornasponge diving spread quickly. Soon there were very good divers such as Lamlako Mustafa, Kara Abidin, Payzan, Şeytan Ahmet (Denizkıran), Deli Hüseyin, Deli İbrahim. There had also emerged, naturally, sponge merchants such as Ali Cengiz, Halil Bilgiç, İbrahim Levent, Ömer Cizdar and others. In the early 50s, Kemal Aras, Vapora, Deli İbrahim and others established a sponge cooperative as well.

Another important turning point in the sponge diving was the arrival of two young divers named Baskın and Tosun from Istanbul in their small boat in 1957-58. Arriving in Bodrum with their diving tubes, these two young divers developed the hookah system after a while and started the period of what the locals called fish-men in Bodrum’s sponge diving. In this system, the regulator of the scuba diving equipment was connected through a pipe to a compressor on the boat. Diving for sponges using this new technique for a while, Baskın and Tosun had a tirhandil named Gavur Ali built in 1963 and went to Libya for more sponges.

The golden era of Bodrum sponge diving between 1945 and 1965 stimulated the boat construction in Bodrum as well. Manytirhandils, which were the most suitable boats for sponge diving, were built during these years. For some time, there were close to 150 boats engaged in sponge diving activities. However, the sponge disease of 1980s and the artificial sponge production eventually ended this lucrative business in Bodrum. Although there are signs that the sponges are back, the sponge diving is still not allowed in Turkey.

Prepared by Ali Kemal Denizaslanı and Timuçin Binder

Written by Timuçin Binder  

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