It is a little known fact that the natural sea sponge – while offering one of the most natural and luxurious personal care experiences available to the modern world – has played an important role in society for many centuries.  Long before the time of synthetic products and artificial remedies, natural sponges of the sea were used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, as well as many other peoples of the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.  Over time, through trade and exploration, these versatile wonders of the sea became popular all throughout Europe and the Western world as well and have remained a treasured resource to the present day.

Sea Sponges in the Ancient World

One the first written references to the use of a sea sponge is found as far back as around 800 B.C. in the works of Homer in both his Odyssey and in the Iliad, where it is said that a sponge was placed into the hands of the god Hephaestus who then cleaned his hands, face, and chest.  And in another place, where servants of the palace of Odysseus used a sea sponge to clean the royal tables after the wasteful meals of the suitors of Penelope.  The sea sponge has also been referenced in the writings of both Aristotle and Plato in both historic and scientific contexts.

The ancient Greeks enjoyed sea sponges as a treasured and practical tool, as some of their best athletes would use them during the Olympic Games for bathing and for applying olive oil and perfumes on their bodies before competing.Other historic records indicate that the sea sponge held great value for the ancient Egyptians, not only for everyday cleaning, bathing, and cosmetic use, but especially as an important tool for the embalming process, where they would soak a sea sponge in oils and fragrances in order to gently wipe clean the body of the deceased until it was thoroughly perfumed and preserved for the burial process.

The ancient Romans, likewise, with their enjoyment of the public bath and their dedication to the arts, cleanliness, and all things pleasurable, found the natural sea sponge a perfect solution for bathing, cosmetics, and cleaning of all kinds.  Roman soldiers also used them to line their helmets as a form of padding, and early doctors and healers used them for cleaning wounds and even found burnt sponges useful as a therapeutic aid for certain diseases.

Each of these civilizations also used the natural sea sponges for many daily tasks like painting, washing, and sweeping floors, and as a way to gather drinking water when cups or other vessels were unavailable.  Other records indicate that the natural sea sponge was even used as one of the first female tampons, and among the many other materials – such as softened wood, lint, softened papyrus, wool, paper, vegetable fibers, grass, and later cotton – the natural sea sponge was found to be one of the safest, most comfortable, and most effective options. 

The Art of Sea Sponge Diving 

While little is known about the exact harvesting and processing methods of ancient cultures, there is no doubt that sea sponges have been gathered from the oceans since antiquity.   The practice of collecting sponges from deep in the sea quickly became referred to – not surprisingly – as “sea sponge diving” and was actually practiced as an Olympic sport by the ancient Greeks.

Ancient Greek Sea Sponge Diver

In these Olympics, sea sponges were fished from the bottom of the ocean using special cutting tools wielded by specially trained divers who had the ability to hold their breath for long periods of time, thus allowing them to dive, harvest, and return to the surface again with their treasure.  Divers were judged for speed and for the size of their sponge. The practice of sea sponge diving is actually thought to be the oldest known form of the art of underwater diving itself.

Sponge Diving Off Boat

The practice of sea sponge fishing as an industry also originated with the ancient Greeks.  Over time as the local popularity of sea sponges grew, Greek fisherman found ways to more efficiently and more quickly process this precious commodity.  The sea sponge’s popularity quickly spread, through trade, to the rest of Europe.   Other Europeans rapidly became fascinated with sea sponges for use as bathing and personal hygiene aids, and the demand for them equally increased.

Around 1800 A.D. sea sponge harvesting had become a successful commercial enterprise and a rather common family occupation all around Mediterranean and the Aegean Seas.  It was the Greek Isle of Kalymnos, resting just at the mouth of the Aegean Sea, which was settled on as one of the most ideal locations for sponge diving in the old world, due to its abundance of large sponge bed populations and calm seas.

Ancient Greece Map.jpg

This new industry brought great economic progress to the island of Kalymnos, as ships filled with eager divers and sea fairing entrepreneurs would port in the island while coming and going all throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.  These ships often stayed out six months or more and would travel as far as Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon.  The whole enterprise was a huge success and many merchants became very wealthy.     

Diving Practices Then and Now

From its beginnings, in its most primitive form, sponges were fished out of the ocean through a process called “skin diving,” in which upon the discovery of a viable sea sponge colony the diver would jump over board almost completely naked holding onto a 15 kilogram flat stone which brought the diver to the bottom very quickly.  Once on the ocean floor the diver would then cut his sponge loose, put a special net around it, and bring it back up to the surface, and all in only 3 to 5 minutes time at depths of around 30 feet or more depending on the lung capacity of the diver.   

First Sea Sponge Divers

In 1865, there was a significant shift for the sea sponge industry as a new invention provided for a slightly safer and more efficient method for procuring these sponges.  It was the introduction of what was then called “the standard diving suit.”  With this new advancement, now divers could stay under the water for much longer periods of time and travel much deeper – he could now walk the ocean floor to find sponges instead of hoping to spot them above water with the limited scoping equipment available at the time.

Old Diver Suit and Sea Sponges

Unfortunately, progress came at a great price.  Sea sponge divers using these new suits began to fall sick with a fatal illness that was being called “Diver’s Disease” – now referred to as “decompression sickness,” that is, the consequence of surfacing too quickly from great depths – which caused instant and extreme paralysis and in many cases death. Historians report that during this first year directly following the invention of these diving suits almost half of the sponge divers who used them were seriously paralyzed and many suffered death.     

Fortunately, today with greater advances in technology and scientific breakthroughs – in no small part influenced by the sacrifice of these brave pioneers – diving has become a far safer and extremely sophisticated undertaking.  

It was around the turn of 20th Century that many Greek sponge divers began to spread out in hopes of finding a new beginning from the tragedies just years earlier, and it was at this time that sponge diving became a worldwide industry.  Divers soon discovered great untouched new sponge colonies rich with sustainable sponge beds all around the Mediterranean Sea, the East Indies, and off the Florida coast. 

Diving for Sea Sponges

Sea Sponges Today

Today sea sponges are gathered in limited quantities from oceans all over the world and continue to be considered as one the most luxurious and natural choices for a variety of personal care and household needs.  Over the last century sea sponges have remained a highly prized and rare commodity with a relatively small but very satisfied user following.  One reason that sea sponges are not even more well-known and have remained a luxury product is in no small part due to the rapid expansion of many other popular and cheap, but ultimately unhealthy and poor quality, synthetic alternatives which have monopolized the market.

The sea sponge’s many uses now include arts and crafts, painting and redecorating, bathing, various cosmetic applications, quality car washing, household cleaning, as photo and video props, as contraceptive aids along with various spermicides, and as an alternative tampon product.  High quality sea sponges – such as the premium Mediterranean Silk – have even been used in operating rooms as a reliable and safe tool of choice during surgical procedures.  

Beyond the many practical applications that sea sponges provide, scientists in recent years have been researching both the sea sponge’s regenerative abilities and the naturally occurring mineral and enzymatic properties found within these sea plant-like creatures that offer many promising discoveries for treating a host of human diseases.

Are Sea Sponges For You?

There is no doubt that sea sponges have always been and will continue to be treasured as a luxurious commodity of our world, bettering the lives of their possessors, and continually offering new solutions for a wide array of household, personal hygiene, medical, and health and wellness needs.  Try your own natural sea sponge today and experience for yourself the indulgence of a truly luxuriating and satisfying personal hygiene experience!