Sponge Fishing (continued)
The cleaning of the sponge is quite a simple operation. The sponge is kept on the deck of the boat until it is dead, and then it is thrown into a "crawl", which is an enclosure of wattle specially made for the purpose. Here the sponges are left to soak for four to six days, during which time they are repeatedly washed by the tide. After this they are taken out of the "crawl" and, as we have already said, beaten with flat pieces of wood resembling paddles. At one time it was customary to bury the sponge in the sand for nearly three weeks to enable the insects to eat away the soft gelatinous matter. But the modern method is preferable, for it is quicker, more simple, and cleans the sponge better.
Now the sponges are taken ashore, and here men and boys sort them out according to size and quality, but the natives, it may be mentioned in passing, are not very good judges of the quality of the sponge. When this has been done, the next operation consists of cutting the sponges into various shapes and removing all the irregularities. Much of this work is performed by native girls and women, and it is most amusing to see the women puffing away at an old, short, clay pipe and to hear them singing hymns. The next step is to pack the sponges into bales for shipment. As soon as this is done, a specimen sponge is fastened outside the bale as an indication of the quality and size of the contents.
But even after all this has been done, the sponges are not yet ready for sale. Before they can be placed on the market they are pressed and washed a great many times in salt and fresh water until every trace of the soft animal matter has disappeared. When these processes have been accomplished the sponges are passed through boiling water with the object of ridding them of the peculiar smell inseparable from the presence of animal matter. At some centres the sponges are bleached by steeping them in a dilute solution of sulphuric acid, in which they are allowed to remain for five or six days, care being taken to press them from time to time. This process certainly imparts a better colour to the sponge, but it considerably impairs its durability. Very often sponges are "loaded" by the addition of such substances as rock salt, molasses, gravel, and sand, in order to increase their weight. Of course, this is done only by unscrupulous merchants and sponge dealers.
The following vivid and descriptive account of sponge fishing in the Bahamas, and the sponge industry to which it gives rise, written by an eyewitness, Mr. Henry A. Blake, at one time Governor of the Bahama Islands, is worth reproducing here:
“From October to July the sponging season is in full swing. There are over five thousand men and boys engaged in the fishery, each schooner carrying a crew of five to seven. The sponges are found all over the banks, which vary in depth from two to four fathoms. The fishing is managed on the share system, the crew being thus directly interested in the success of the voyage, which lasts about six weeks. Arrived on the ground, the small boats, of which each schooner carries two or three, put off, manned each by two men, one of whom sculls, while the other, armed with a thirty-foot pole, bearing at the end a double hook, lies extended over the bow, and examines the bottom through a "sponge glass", or bucket with a glass bottom. Laying this upon the surface, everything below is seen as clearly as if no water intervened.