The summer heat didn't seem to matter to suntanned barkers outside the souvenir shops when we arrived in Tarpon Springs. As we walked along the sidewalk, they didn't waste time persuading us to try Greek lunch specials, buy sponge products, visit museums, and get on dolphin boat tours. Every single offer sounded tempting, and we had the whole day to try just about everything.

Diver Helmet - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Sponge-O-Rama Museum

The very first place we visited was Sponge-O-Rama's Museum along Dodecanese Ave. Inside, we found paper mache dioramas depicting the life of the early settlers of Tarpon Springs. As one of the very first attractions that visitors encounter along the avenue, it makes a great starting point to learn Tarpon Spring's early history.

Sponge-O-Rama Museum - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Tarpon Springs' History

Attracted by the area's demand for fishermen and sponge divers, Greek immigrants began to settle in Tarpon Springs in the 1880s. Greek fishermen with a lot of experience sponge diving in the Aegean Sea were particularly invaluable to the city's thriving sponge industry. Today, Tarpon Springs is considered to have the highest percentage of Greek-Americans in any city in the United States, and its unique culture and traditions are still proudly celebrated.

Sponge on the dock - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Tarpon Springs caters mainly to tourists nowadays, but it remains home to many locals who, like their predecessors, still work as fishermen and sponge divers. For more than a century, the sponge industry has and still continues to contribute to Tarpon Spring's economy.

Sponge Diving

Among of area's main attractions is sponge diving--an extremely dangerous method of collecting sponge in some of the deepest parts of the Gulf of Mexico. Since sponge is found as deep as 150 feet on the ocean floor, cultivating them used to require divers to wear cumbersome brass helmets and thick diving suits. Although they now use modern diving equipment, the traditional diving suit and helmet have nonetheless become emblems in the sponge diving community especially in Tarpon Springs.

Diver Statue - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Mediterranean Vibes

Walking in front of heritage buildings sometimes felt like we were in a real Mediterranean town.The place has everything to make you feel like you are in Greece: Greek flags on lamp posts, locals in the streets speaking Greek, folk music pouring out of small souvenir shops, and of course a large selection of restaurants serving authentic Greek cuisine--such as the well-renowned Hellas Restaurant. We're not exactly adventurous when it comes to food, but tasting Hella's delicious beef-lamb gyros was quite a gastronomic experience, to say the least.

Gyros - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Tarpon Springs Aquarium

After our short Sponge-O-Rama's Museum visit, we went to Tarpon Springs Aquarium and had the opportunity to watch sharks being fed by a scuba diver inside a giant glass tank. The place is small but perfect for experiencing intimate animal encounters. Apart from viewing sharks, groupers, eels and other aquatic animals up close, we saw turtles, lobsters, alligators, snakes, and even got to pet stingrays.

Aquarium - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

The aquarium is also home to several captive Tarpon, the fish responsible for the city's namesake. Some say that the city became known as Tarpon Springs after the early residents in the city saw Tarpon jumping out of the water. The aquarium has been entertaining and educating visitors since 1991, Unfortunately, the aquarium's lease is up in December 2016, and it is relying on donations to relocate to a nearby site.

Boat Dock - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Preserved Identity 

After our visit to the aquarium, we strolled up and down the avenue to look for new things to do. But the heat was so intense that day that at some point, we gave up walking and just sat on a bench under a tree overlooking the sponge dock. We spent the rest of our time enjoying the sea breeze, watching the boats swaying gently back and forth on the water, and observing the workers silently packing sponges into big nets. Despite all the changes tourism has made to Tarpon Springs, the place still proudly maintains its identity, and the people that live there are very pleased about it.

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