Jan 2020 Trip Report 2: Tarpon Springs

JAN 23, 2020 One Earth on the Road, Part 2: Tarpon Springs!

If you haven’t seen it, check out our first trip report about our first week in southwestern Florida near Naples. This week, we traveled 3 hours north to Tarpon Springs, on the coast west of Tampa for our second show, at the Sponge Docks.

Tarpon Springs was settled by westerners in the late 1800s as wealthy people came down from the North and others came up from Key West, the Bahamas and other areas. It got its name because settlers saw what they thought were tarpon jumping out of the surrounding waters. Tarpon are a fish species that are said to be bony and not good for eating. They have an interesting life cycle, traveling between salt, brackish, and even freshwater habitats at different life stages.

Greek immigrants arriving during the early years made the area famous. They brought their knowledge of sponge diving to this area, where in the nearby Gulf of Mexico waters there were huge populations of sea sponges at the time.

Sponge boat, Tarpon Springs

Sponge Boat with sponges, Tarpon Springs, FL

Tarpon Springs was known as the Sponge Capital of the World until the 1940s when a red tide killed many of the sponges. I wonder if the rate of harvesting sponges also had something to do with the decline. Synthetic sponges were developed then to replace the natural ones, and people got used to these cheap alternatives. However, sponges recovered and the industry made a comeback. After a blight hit Meditteranean sponges in the 1980s, Tarpon Springs sponging again became a thriving industry. Sponges are still harvested and brought in to the Sponge Docks, although not in the quantities they were in the early 1900s.

The Sponge Docks festival went better than the Ave Maria festival. The docks are a popular tourist spot with many street events, shops, Greek and seafood restaurants. We enjoyed great neighbors again, with Kristen and Mark of Birdie Girl Designs to our right with their balancing bird lawn ornaments. To our left were CD and Michael Larrabee of Soak up the Sun Mosaic with their gorgeous stained glass sea-themed art. Further down was wacky Syd with his bathroom humor underwear aprons, and Julie & David Waters, the Enchanted Oilers.

Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks festival

Birdy Girl designs

In addition to a wide array of other designs, Birdie Girl had both Trump and Bernie birds for sale. Their strategy is to take the pulse of the public and follow the money. To our dismay, the Trump birds were their #1 best-seller of the whole show. However, some of the vendors we’ve enjoyed getting to know in the last couple weeks are Trump supporters. Knowing people as fellow human beings before knowing their politics can sometimes enable relationships to grow that might otherwise be tainted by preconceived ideas from the start. Can we remember our common humanity in these divisive times? This recognition often gets sidelined in the poisonous stew of toxic tensions that is the modern political landscape. Of course questions remain. Would I have had a different experience with these Trump supporters if I wasn’t white? I can’t assume I know the answer.

Us excited to bit into my 50th Birthday dinner at Athens Star Cafe

We celebrated my 50th birthday on Jan. 19th with a visit to a phenomenal Greek restaurant after our day at the show. Athens Star Grill is owned by a sweet lady named Maria and her husband. Maria told us some of her fascinating life story, which she’s lived between Greece, NY City and Florida. She made us fresh mint tea from her mint patch growing by the restaurant. The plate-sized spanakopita was only $6, the salads were ginormous, the stuffed chicken had insane flavor, and the baklava was perfect – not overly sweet, and stuffed with goodness. If you are ANYWHERE in the vicinity of Tarpon Springs, and you like to eat, go out of your way to have a meal at Athens!

Banyan Tree becoming a whole grove. Notice how trunks form from branches that dropped aerial roots to the ground.

After the Sponge Docks festival we headed to Bradenton to see friends, take a little break, and get caught up on plans for Spring festivals and events. We met up with an amazing Banyan Tree and learned a little about this fascinating species. The Banyan is in the fig family (Ficus) and is native to India. Banyans have a fascinating growth habit: they begin growing as epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants). As seeds, they take root in the crevices of other trees or buildings. Eventually they grow down and around the structure, often “strangling” it in the process. They drop shoots to the ground which then form new trunks, and eventually one tree can become a whole grove.

We also visited the Myakka River State Park. Beautiful expanses of wetlands, river, and forests of live oak and pines made for a lovely evening hike. We saw many waterbirds and witnessed the Sandhill Cranes fly in for the evening. We also saw many wild pigs, which are invasive here and dig up the soil while rooting for grubs. The primitive campgrounds (no water or electricity) are booked months in advance. This shows that many people enjoy Florida’s natural areas. The state should preserve many more areas for non-electrified recreation and camping, especially with all the development going on here. I feel the same way about the town we live in in Indiana (Carmel). Too much development, too little Nature.

Live oaks and palm trees in Myakka River State Park

Tomorrow we head south to Englewood for the Englewood Seafood and Music Festival. After that we fly back north for about 10 days, and then fly back down for another round of events. Happy trails, and stay tuned for Trip Report #3!

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