The Diving Helmet
WHILE YOU’RE READING THIS, IF IT’S DAY time, a man is slowly walking under forty feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico a mile or two off the Florida coast. He is leaning far forward into the current and examining the dim ocean floor in front of ,him, rhythmically turning his head from side to side. Periodically he sees a sponge, gathers it with a rake held in his right hand, and deposits it in a wire basket. Most likely he is a Greek-American doing the same thing his father and grandfather did: professional sponge diving. He is probably wearing modified scuba gear, but he may be one of the very few left who use a traditional canvas-and-rubber suit and a copper, brass, and plateglass diving helmet made by Nick Toth. If so, he looks like an illustration from a Jules Verne novel from your childhood.
Commercial sponge fishing was inaugurated in Florida in 1890 by a settler named John Cheyney. Around 1905 he began bringing over men from Greece who rather than fish for sponges dived for them. They made the community of Tarpon Springs, outside Tampa, one of the world capitals of sponge diving. It remains that today, supported by a lovely sunfilled dockside community of Greek shops, bakeries, restaurants, and tavernas.
Tony Lerios arrived in Tarpon Springs in 1913, when he was twenty-one, and before long he became the master helmet maker for the sponge divers, a job he held almost until his death at a hundred in 1992 and one carried on today by his grandson, Nick Toth. “My grandfather was born on the island of Kalymnos,” Toth says. “When he was a boy, he moved to Istanbul and began learning to be a master mechanic at the big shipyards there. Here in Tarpon Springs he did everything. He maintained something like a hundred boats for the sponge divers. And he produced the very best helmets he could. That’s what I do too.”
Toth, who is forty-two, went off to college and graduate school but couldn’t shake off the tug of his roots. “I liked my grandfather’s way of solving problems,” he says. “No matter what it was, he could walk up, take a look, and present you with a solution. No job was ever too tough. He was a selftaught engineer who spoke six languages fluently and who you’d find reading books on medicine and philosophy and the arts in Greek.”
For most of Toth’s childhood the sponge-diving industry was in decline, the victim of both red tides and the rise of synthetic sponges. But “in the eighties,” he explains, “for whatever reason—and I think maybe it was Chernobyl—the sponges in the Mediterranean died. So our market took off. There’s a very healthy demand for our Rock Island wools. They’re the best sponges in the world, very tough and very soft. They’re used in manufacturing in the ceramics and paint-making industries as well as by individuals. One sponge a foot across wholesales for up to fifteen dollars.”
Toth works in a shed full of his grandfather’s machine tools. “He bought most of this stuff used in the twenties and thirties,” he explains. “This Atlas lathe was his first piece of equipment, from the early teens.
“To make a helmet, I start with a sheet of malleable copper and hammer it against this cast-iron mandrel form”—a sort of dished-out anvil—“which my grandfather had made in the teens or twenties. That makes the shoulder piece. The surface of the helmet I have spun from copper in a precise design of my grandfather’s. I machine and finish all the pieces right here.
“Look on the inside surface of this finished helmet. You see the stavro , the cross? Those are the channels that carry the air in, from the tube leading down from the boat. And that mushroom cap on the side of the -helmet is the dump valve. You’re constantly tapping that with the side of your head to let air out, so you don’t get too buoyant.
“As you can see, I use traditional plate glass. And I make all the fittings—wing nuts, valves, everything. One of these helmets will last in daily use for thirty or forty years.” Only one or two of them are still in daily use, though; most sponge divers, like other divers today, use “soft gear,” not “hardhat.” Nonetheless, Toth is working on twelve helmets at present. They’re being bought mainly by collectors, such as members of diving clubs or local people who want a handsome reminder of the old days.
One place where hardhat diving still thrives is in San Francisco Bay. Industrial divers like the warmth and safety of a metal shell around the head. “There’s a company in California that wants me to produce commercial helmets for them,” Toth says, “because their gear is getting old. They like my work because other manufacturers’ helmets won’t last as well. I’m glad, because this is something I want to keep alive and keep doing. For my grandfather.”