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Wonders of the Deep: Williamson Submarine Expedition, Sponge Fishing in the Bahamas including sponge types and composition, methods of locating and fishing sponges and a look at this trade carried out by the natives.

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Sponge Fishing (continued)

There are now known to be no fewer than one hundred and fifty different kinds of sponges. These, however, may be grouped into two main classes, namely, the common sponges, which are rounded or flat in shape; and the finer sponges, which are concave or cup-like in form.

Sponges assume all kinds of shapes. Some are like a beautiful vase, others are semi-cylindrical, while others, again, are nearly flat, like an open fan. In some cases the shape of the sponge bears a likeness to an open hand; these are known as glove sponges. Sponges are found very abundantly in tropical or semi-tropical waters, the most noted sponge centres being certain parts of Australia, the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the West Indies, and the Bahamas. Certain kinds of sponges, but not many, grow at an extremely rapid rate. These have been known to reach a diameter of a foot in so short a period as five months. Others, on the contrary, grow exceedingly slowly. Many sponges attain an enormous size. The Williamson Submarine Expedition obtained several photographs of the monster tub sponge, which grows to a height of nearly ten feet. As these sponges have no commercial value they are invariably left growing undisturbed.

In the Bahamas the sponge fisheries are carried on entirely by the natives. The sponge fleet consists of a variety of small vessels, and will often sail a distance of ninety miles from the islands. Each boat has on board a peculiar type of cooking box, in which the food for the crew is prepared, and these cooking boxes, it is strange to say, are exactly the same as those used by the sailors of Columbus' time, over four hundred years ago. They are filled with sand, on which a fire is constructed. From twenty to thirty men, women, and children make their homes on one of these boats during the sponge season. A sponge fishing trip usually lasts about six weeks.

Sponge fishing: The native on the right is looking through a bucket with a glass bottom

The native fishermen are each provided with a bucket having a glass bottom, and a thirty-foot grappling pole containing a set of strong iron hooks at the end. The position of the sponge is located through the bucket, and then the fisherman seizes it by means of his grappling pole. Sometimes the roots of the sponge run through the bed of the sea for some distance, and then the native has the greatest difficulty in tearing away a portion of the sponge. While this is being done a number of different kinds of fish gather round the spot, anxiously waiting to seize any food that they can find as soon as the sponge has been torn away.

In some parts of the sponge beds the divers descend to the ocean floor and tear the sponges off. As one would naturally expect, this work frequently entails considerable danger to the native diver.

Some of the finest qualities of sponge are to be found in the Bahama Islands, the principal depot being at Nassau. But others, possessing a greater degree of coarseness, are also found, and as these are cheaper than European sponges, the process of preparation of the coarser qualities is not so careful. Sponge fishing in the Bahamas, which gives employment to six or seven hundred vessels and about five thousand men, is carried on in the enormous beds that lie to the east, west, and south of the island of New Providence. Although often far from the shore, and at a depth varying from twenty to sixty feet, the sponging ground can be descried quite easily through the transparent waters on the clear, sandy bottom, from which the sponges are raked or grappled up. From William's Cay and Andros Island the finest qualities of sponge are obtained. The superior kinds of sponge are most serviceable for surgical purposes, and when prepared are generally dispatched to America.


Nassau sponge fishing depot

William's Cay

Andros Island

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