Interview: Author Goes Deep in New Book on Greek Sponge Diving

Torrance Parker and Greek Consul General Elisabeth Fotiadou
Torrance Parker and Greek Consul General Elisabeth Fotiadou

“It’s amazing what [Greeks] have done and the culture they brought. You hardly have people like that anymore in America.”

Torrance Parker’s work in commercial diving spans more than a half-century. His career began at age 16 during World War II, working on a Greek sponge diving boat in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1947, he moved to San Pedro, Calif., and founded Parker Diving Service Inc., which has performed work in many parts of the United States, Central and South America. Although Parker sold the business in the 1980s, it still operates under the Parker name, and is the oldest continuously operating commercial diving company in California.

Parker, now 85, has since retired from diving, and has authored 20,000 Jobs Under the Sea – A History of Diving and Underwater Engineering in 1997, as well as the recently released book, 20,000 Divers Under the Sea – A History of the Mediterranean and Western Atlantic Sponge Trades With an Account of Early Deep Diving, which presents a deep and thorough account of sponge diving from ancient Greece to its current epicenter in the heavily populated Greek community of Tarpon Springs, Florida. From the first sponge trade in the Aegean Sea, to its expansion into the greater Mediterranean area, the book chronicles the history of sponge diving. Parker also connects Greek immigration to America and the establishment of the sponge diving industry in Florida during the twentieth century.

And his work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2012, Parker was the recipient of the HDS Diving Pioneer Award, and was honored for his lengthy successful commercial diving career, his continuing contributions to the accurate recording of diving history and his leadership role in presenting diving history to the general public.

Greek Reporter recently spoke to Parker following a diving event at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, which was hosted by the Greek Consul General, Elisabeth Fotiadou. He told us about his career, and provided some insight on what it was like to work with Greek sponge divers, as well as gave us a history lesson on how the Greeks managed to get through tragedy and triumph in order to support their families during the sponge diving boom and decline.

How did you get involved in diving?

I had always wanted to be a diver. And so, when my folks wouldn’t sign my minors release to get into service for World War II, I left home and went down to Tarpon Springs [Florida]. I heard there were divers down there, and that’s how I got on. They took pity on me. When they first saw me, they thought, ‘Whoa, we made a mistake,’ because I had written the lady at the Chamber of Commerce telling her I was a full-fledged diver.

What was your early diving experience like?

When I was working on the sponge boats as a young man, actually a boy, the [Greeks] called me ‘cowboy.’ They all had these nicknames, and they all talked in Greek. We only would have one meal on the boat, because the Greek people and mariners — the divers — didn’t think it was good to eat and then dive, so they ate very little during the day. The cook would fix a little fish and a little coffee…maybe we’d have a little breakfast — it was light — but there was lots of sugar in that thick coffee. Then at night, we would sit around on the canvas, they’d lay the canvas around on the deck, and they were all talking in Greek. I didn’t know what the heck they were saying. It was quite an experience for an Oklahoma boy.

Why were there mostly Greeks on the diving vessel?

It was 99 percent Greeks and a few Americans. The Greeks dominated this trade, and they did since antiquity. They’re hard workers and great seafarers. Of course, it started in the Mediterranean and in the Aegean, and then they shifted to North Africa in the 1840s.

Your latest book, 20,000 Divers Under The Sea: A History of the Mediterranean and Western Atlantic Sponge Trades with an Account of Early Deep Diving, talks about the history of Greeks and sponge diving. Tell me a little bit about that.

ParkerBook

They didn’t come out with diving gear for the Greeks until about 1863, and at that point in time, they didn’t know about decompression. They knew what would happen if you’d go deep and stayed long, but they didn’t know why or how to prevent it. Nobody did, not just the Greeks. They didn’t really develop decompression tables until 1906, so there was a horrendous death rate of Greeks diving in the Mediterranean. When they would sail from their home islands, like Kalymnos or Symi, they would go 400 miles to the South off North Africa. They were diving off into very deep water and they were dying like flies. They’d be gone a couple of months and send a dispatch back saying, ‘Send more divers.’ They’d killed 5,000 divers in less than 40 years, from 1863 to before 1900. It was the most dangerous occupation in the world. Besides the death rate, the paralysis. If they didn’t die, they came home crippled or couldn’t walk. It’s quite a tragedy.

Why do you think it was worth it to them to risk their lives?

I know what their motivation was: survival. The people on the islands in those years — in the 1800s — were very poor. They had no other thing to do, the islands couldn’t support them very well; they had to fish, they had to live off the sea. And they had no education, most of them could not even write their own name…even the Captains.

In the book, you also talk about the connection of Greek immigration to the establishment of the sponge diving industry in Florida.

When these people, the mass migration of Greek people came to Tarpon Springs in America on the west coast of Florida in 1905, they came and had no education, they had no tools…except they had a willingness to work hard. They were hard workers, they knew boats, they knew the sea, they knew how to get sponges. And they did that, and they educated their children; their children became doctors, lawyers, dentists, professional people. It’s amazing what they’ve done and the culture they brought. You hardly have people like that anymore in America. It’s a wonderful story, really.

Are there still dangers in diving?

Yes, there are. Diving is inherently dangerous, period. Anything you do where you have to put breathing apparatus on and go underwater is dangerous, but it’s not nearly as dangerous as it used to be because now we know that if we go to a certain depth beyond 33 feet deep, breathing compressed air, you have a certain length of time that your body does not get saturated. After that, it starts to get saturated with excess nitrogen and dissolves into your bloodstream, gets carried around in various parts in your body, and if you come up too quick, it’s like opening a bottle of soda or beer — it bubbles. Those bubbles will travel around your bloodstream and cause paralysis or nerve damage or all sorts of problems.

How skilled of a diver do you have to be to sponge dive?

You have to be very skilled. It takes training. They usually start as young boys, like in Greece. They would work as deckhands…then they would start them out with a dive or two once in a while. They serve an apprenticeship.

You recently gave a live diving demonstration in Los Angeles at the Maritime Museum with support from the Greek community and the Greek Consul General, Elisabeth Fotiadou. What was that like?

It was a thrill for me and I thought it was so sweet for Elisabeth to come down. My family and my friends came, and of course, a lot of people I don’t know. I enjoyed getting back in the water again.

I’ve been very lucky, [diving]’s been good to me and helped me do well for my family. And I’m still alive; most of the divers I worked with have either died or were injured. I have some good friends that are still in Tarpon Springs. One of them, Tasos Karistinos, he’s in his 60s now and he’s still diving for sponges.

Is there still a market for sponge diving?

There’s not a demand for sponges like there used to be. People still buy them but not in the quantities that they used to. It’s a tough business. People doing it now earn a living and that’s about it. And they really have to know what they’re doing. It’s a tiny business now, it’s almost gone.

Finally, have you ever had the opportunity to dive in Greece?

No, I’ve never been to Greece. I hope to go someday but I’m 85. I’m going to Tarpon Springs in a few weeks, I have many Greek friends there. There are five or six thousand Greeks living there right now. It’s like going to Greece. You go down to the docks and the Greek music is playing over loud speakers. It’s the easiest way to goto Greece without flying overseas.

To get a copy of Torrance Parker’s book20,000 Divers Under The Sea: A History of the Mediterranean and Western Atlantic Sponge Trades with an Account of Early Deep Diving, visit www.hds.org, or call 310-265-0094.