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Kalymnos & the last sponge-divers of the Aegean

It belongs to the Dodecanese, it is just 20km from the Turkish coast and is known to all the mountain climbers for its mountains.
It is none other than beautiful Kalymnos.

The “soft gold” of Kalymnos

The locals use to say “When God created the earth, He just flung a few rocks in the direction of Kalymnos. It is difficult to believe that what we once saw as a curse is now a blessing”. And they mean it.
Because of its nature without rich land and without any special means to secure the lives of her people, Kalymnos gave her inhabitants only one choice: the sea. So, for years the islanders earned their life with fishing and, above all, with the “soft gold”.  This is a common name that was used for years for the natural sponges, which were to be found in abundance on the seabed. That sort  of “fishing” has made Kalymnos for many years a rich island. It is very characteristic that sponge divers were the only professionals who were paid with golden British pounds.
Of course, judging by the number of black-dressed women or disabled people, the cost of this was very high. Although the reality is much different nowadays, there are more than just a few people who take distance from the new “order of things” and remember their second home under the water … They seek the action and the risk with which they grew up. From the time when Kalymnos divers were looking forward to the spring.

The past

The last preparations

Preparations started in February and as the day of the departure was coming closer, everyone was living in the fever of the “long trip”.  Equipments were repaired, ships were equipped, the crew was collected and agreements were signed … The island was transformed into a buzzing beehive with its bees going non-stop. A big celebration which took place the last evening before the departure and in which the whole island participated was the end of this part.

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Facing the unknown

Nobody was sure if  after this trip they would see their beloved persons again.
Sponge divers were very young, between 17 and 27 and they were diving in deep depths, with inadequate equipment. Unsafe decompression, poor nutrition, often sharks… were just  few of the dangers. Those who did not have the chance to live and experience the pleasure of the return journey were buried on small islets near the place where they were diving. Despite that, the need of Kalymnians to live was urgent and tourism was still an unknown chapter.
So, it is quite understandable why the last feast before the departure was so important and all were reconciled before the “long trip”.

Next morning followed the departure. Men bid farewell to their mothers, women and children, leaving behind money for the whole summer. They departed in groups of 40 to 50  boats (=”kaikia”) and travelled for months, all the way to Libya. During their travel they were  remaining in groups.

A women island

At that period of the year  one could find on the island only women, children, widowers and cripples. Women wore black clothes as a sign of sadness about the mortal danger their loved ones were facing. Only with their return life found again their normal rhythms. The feast began when the first ships appeared on the horizon. If their flag was high, everything was fine, but if a boat was approaching with a middle-mast flag, this was a sign that somebody of the crew missed.

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Until a few decades ago, Kalymnian divers collected up to a million sponges, which were exported all over the world. The basic income of most families on Kalymnos was then from sponge-fishing.
Gradually the situation changed: intensive fishing has reduced the sponges on the seabed. Synthetic products made the competition enormous and, in addition, the danger combined with the difficulty made young people to look for different job options than the existing ones.

Memories from the “soft gold era”

The “mission-impossible” that once was one-way and determined for years the identity of the island, today has turned into a forgotten tradition. Natural sponges in tourist shops, old photos, some elderly or disabled who look nostalgically at the sea and some middle-aged who talk about their childhood memories are the only things which are left from the “soft gold era” of Kalymnos.

More details for the hunting of the “soft gold” find at the documentary of Bengt Borjesson (with english subtitling) in two parts:
Preparations and the sponge-diving
Life on board and the way back

The new reality

Nowadays the reality is different. Ten thousand people visit the island every year just in order to climb to its rocks. Italian climbers seem to have discovered the destination in 1996 and since then everybody “climbs”. The Climbing Festival is in October. Autumn is always the best time for climbing.
Locals are happy, even if they seem not to understand the joy of climbing. They are born divers.
Diving is the second strongest point of the island. Shipwrecks, reefs, underwater caves… That is why on Kalymnos the only state school of divers of Greece is to be found, but also many others who undertake to give us a safe guided tour and experience in the world under water.

A visit to Kalymnos remains always a pleasure. The greatest delight comes from the people who have remained authentic, genuine, sincere, without changing the slightest by the everyday tourism of their place. They are the type of people who are used to struggle for their lives without taking something for granted but as a simple gift.


                                          © Lato,
Het Griekse Taal– & CultuurCentrum van Amsterdam

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