New Greek TV had the opportunity to travel to Tarpon Springs, Florida and interview sponge diver Fotis Notte.
Notte's great-great-grandfather, who immigrated from Kalymnos to Tarpon Springs, was one of the city's first sponge divers. Tarpon Springs is universally recognized as the "Sponge Diving Capital of the World" and was founded by John M. Cocoris in 1905. The city is home to the largest Greek-American population in the nation.
In our interview below, the sun-kissed sponge diver discusses his Hellenic ancestry, sponge diving career, the Greek-American community of Tarpon Springs, and more.
Maria Athens: Can you tell us about your great-great-grandfather's immigration to America and his sponge diving career?
Fotis Notte: My great-great-grandfather came here back at the turn of the century from the island of Kalymnos, when the large Greek migration to Tarpon Springs occurred. The Greek immigrants from my island moved here to dive for sponges. He came with his brothers; we have had ties here for a long long time.
Maria Athens: Why did they settle in Tarpon Springs?
Fotis Notte: They were divers from the islands, that's where all the divers came from. Most of the population in Tarpon Springs are Kalymians, who were all sponge divers and fisherman, that sort of nature. This was in the early 1900s.
Maria Athens: Have you been in Tarpon Springs your whole life?
Fotis Notte: I grew up in New Port Richie, Florida which is just north of here. I had a lot of family here and I still do have family here in Tarpon Springs.
Maria Athens: How did you end up sponge diving just like your ancestors?
Fotis Notte: I had worked as a surgical assistant for about seven years and I wanted a change. My brother had a sponge boat here and my family was familiar with the sponge diving industry in Tarpon Springs. It seemed like the thing to do and a really great way to explore my heritage actually. I enjoy my job.
Maria Athens: What are the challenges and rewards in your profession?
Fotis Notte: It's seven days a week doing the tours. It is also kind of dangerous. I have tremendous respect for the sponge divers back in the old days. They used to loose six to ten guys a year because of either the bends or mechanical failures. I enact a demonstration dive in the river in the old sponge gear that they used to dive in, way back when. It is pretty interesting.
Maria Athens: Have you ever had a scary experience sponge diving?
Fotis Notte: Yes, I commercial dive as well. If I go this year, it will mark my sixth season sponge diving. I have had to come up with no air from twenty-five feet. With this suit, you never know some days...
Maria Athens: Where do these sponges end up? What are they used for?
Fotis Notte: They are distributed all over the world and are used for all kinds of things. There are more than 1,600 uses for a natural sponge; more than just a bath and things of that nature. There are many commercial applications-car washes, plasters, wall paper hangers, tile setters, horse farms buy a lot of them; the list goes on.
Maria Athens: Can you describe Greek-American life in Tarpon Springs?
Fotis Notte: It's great, this is a neat little town. The Greeks modeled the town after the islands; they wanted to feel like they were home. It's a little bit of Greece right here in Florida. It's a neat little city with a small town feel in the middle of everything.
Maria Athens: Do many Greeks and Greek-Americans visit?
Fotis Notte: Yes, a lot of people from Greece come actually and ride the boats with us. We get a ton of people from all over.
Maria Athens: What did you think of MTV's "Growing Up Greek" show shot in Tarpon Springs?
Fotis Notte: I didn't mind, but a lot of people got really funny about it. The older generation did not like it.
Maria Athens: Have you been to Greece? Do you speak Greek?
Fotis Notte: No I have not made it there yet. It's on the to do list. I speak a little Greek.
Maria Athens: Does the Tarpon Springs lifestyle mirror the Greek coastal lifestyle?
Fotis Notte: Yes, we have some kafenios down the street, it's classic.
Maria Athens: Is the Greek community here increasing or decreasing?
Fotis Notte: I believe it's scattering a little bit. But there are still a lot of Greek folks here, it is a very large community.
Maria Athens: How Greek do you feel?
Fotis Notte: I feel pretty Greek, I love it.