Some in my contingent were questioning the wisdom of putting 10 members of our extended family and four friends together in a four-bedroom beach rental at Tarpon Springs, Florida. After two hours of unloading and stowing gear, groceries and beach towels, the question mark was followed by an exclamation point. Add another hour for a trip to the launch ramp to drop our Evinrude-powered Bluewater offshore boat, two Sea-Doos, a Wake 215 and a GTI SE 155, and we were suddenly tired enough to rest.
We were catching our breath when a neighbor walked by holding something behind his back.
"Look what I caught out there!" He was standing there in blood-stained fishing clothes and a well-worn hat. Sometimes beach-rental tenants aren't too popular among the surrounding homeowners, so we were open-mouthed. He was pointing to Honeymoon Island, about four miles out from our temporary home, then brought up his hidden hand. It held a shark about two feet long.
"Yep, hook up a shrimp or cut bait and throw it out right off the tip of the island. You can catch one, too."
But with Sea-Doos, and a plan to jump off the back of them to snorkel, sharks weren't really what we wanted to hear about. We were here to find some of the infamous sponges near Tarpon Springs, and to do that, we'd also stowed along our extra secret weapon -- an Airline hookah system by Joe Sink. Powered by a Honda mower engine, it sports three diving regulators, each with 60 feet of hose -- ideal for scouring the waters for our quarry.
To get a clue about where to look, we headed to the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks hoping to talk to the professional divers. On the way, we spotted snorkelers in the beachfront park. Hunting sponges, we presumed.
"I wonder how many they've found," I asked my wife. She and Amy, my 12-year old daughter, were more intent on the beach layout, so my question went unanswered.
It's tempting to call the Sponge Docks the tourist district, thanks to its numerous shops and restaurants neatly posted along the riverfront road. The river is lined bow to stern with tour boats, but in truth, the community's sponge divers trade here too, offloading their sponges while talking to visitors.
That's what Solan Zagorianos and his wife were doing when we arrived. Two or three piles of sponges -- maybe a thousand of three various species in them, ranging from grapefruit-size to basketballs -- lay on deck. They rinsed and rolled them, letting the last remains of animal matter flow from their pores as they dried. What remains is the absorbent skeleton that gives them their name.
Then we got our first surprise.
"Where do you find them?" we asked, ready to take mental notes, hopeful of finding a few of our own sponges to display for trophies.
"About 60 miles from here," said Solan, "20 miles offshore of Homosassa."
We'd just left that area, more than an hour away by highway and far out of fuel range for our Sea-Doos.
"We don't find sponges around here much," said Solan. He nodded toward the piles. "It took us two weeks of hunting to find those."
Suddenly beach combing and snorkeling for sand dollars and sea shells sounded more enticing. So we returned to our sponge dock and headed to sea. A chase boat and a pair of watercraft are the ideal combination for exploring new territory.