978-1-58465-272-4 / 9781584652724

The Bellstone: The Greek Sponge Divers of the Aegean





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About the book:

For centuries, the young men of the Dodecanese Islands, a string of islands in the Aegean Sea between Greece and the coast of Asia Minor, earned their living by diving for sponges. They would descend to the bottom of the sea on just a single breath of air, using as a weight and rudder a flat, marble diving stone called a bellstone. They used this ancient technique of "naked diving" until 1863 when the deep-sea diving suit was introduced into the sponge-fishing industry. The new diving suit (dubbed "Satan's machine" by the divers) allowed the diver to remain under water for long periods of time, increasing his productivity a hundredfold, but it also brought a dramatic change in the physiology of diving. Rather than taking one deep breath, the diver now breathed compressed air, which caused "the bends" if he rose from the depths of the sea too quickly. Pressure from international companies to increase the number of sponges harvested on each dive led to mounting casualties. Between 1866 and 1895, on the island of Kalymnos alone, 800 young men died of the bends and 200 more were paralyzed. Michael N. Kalafatas's grandfather, born on the island of Symi, was eye-witness to these events. In 1995, Kalafatas discovered an epic poem entitled "Winter Dream" written by his grandfather, Metrophanes Kalafatas. The poem, composed a century earlier in Greek, recounts the plight of sponge divers confronted with this new technology. He had the poem rendered into English by poet Olga Broumas, and using it as his bellstone, dove into his own past. While tracing the historical and cultural contours of this Greek livelihood, Kalafatas carries the reader from the Dodecanese Islands in the 19th century to Constantinople and the Black Sea as well as to contemporary Tarpon Springs, Florida, and Melbourne, Australia - the far-flung outposts of the Greek sponge-diving diaspora. He portrays the hubris of young sponge divers defying the odds; the passion of their wives and mothers in protesting the new diving suits; the venality of international capitalists intent on maximising their investments; and the courage of the Dodecanese people in adapting to catastrophic changes beyond their control. The story Kalafatas weaves is deeply personal, as his grandfather's poem leads the author back to Greece. But it is more than a personal story; it is a lamentation for and celebration of the families, history and culture of the sponge divers of the Dodecanese.

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