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Sponging In The Bahamas



First Published: 1999-05-01

Vivid sponges grow in patches of bright orange, deep rust, and flourescent yellow in the waters of the Bahamas. Giant tube and basket sponges amidst black coral, schools of giant tuna and amberjack, eagle rays and huge groupers, grow along a wall off Bimini, which begins at 120 feet. Jewfish Wall, off Rum Cay, boasts vibrant orange basket sponges and purple tube sponges.

Sponges, which are now most widely known as a synthetic household item used to wash dishes, were once a major industry in the Bahamas. In modern days it is rare to see a real sponge, unless it is sold as a curio or souvenir in the Straw Market.

There is still one small business in Nassau that still exports sponges (Sponges International — 242-356-7542). Sponges are found all over the Bahama islands, and exported to the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Japan. There are stacks of wool, grass, hardhead, reef, and yellow sponges, all divided into their own piles. The wool sponges are usually found near Andros, Abaco, and Long Island. They are soft, thick, and luxurious. As with the other sponges, they are used for a variety of purposes: housecleaning, paint rollers, bathing, (especially in hospitals), cushions, sofas, (in furniture, i.e. cars, boats, and homes). Hardhead sponges are smaller and often used for decoration and cosmetics (i.e. make-up). Yellow sponges are too hard to bathe with, and are often sold as souvenirs.

The sponge is an animal which anchors itself to the sea-floor. Its porous and elastic skeleton has been used by Bahamians, and sold internationally for centuries. A shipwrecked Frenchman made the first overseas shipment in 1841 when he realized its value.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, sponges grew most abundantly in the large underwater area to the south-west of Andros, and great quantities were also found on the Little Bahama Bank, west of Abaco, the Exuma Sound, Acklins, and the Bimini Bank.

They were gathered by a dinghy, with two men, a waterglass, and a pair of hooks. One person sculled the boat, while the other sighted the sponge. At this time the boat was stopped and the iron hooks on the end of a pole were lowered into the sea, to wrench the sponge from its attachment. The sponges were thrown onto dry dock or land to die. They were then put into a fenced-in area of seawater called a "kraal" so that the decomposing tissue could be washed out. The sponges were beaten and washed for final cleaning, and then put out to dry.

The sponges were then sorted into piles of the various kinds: wool, velvet, reef, hardhead, yellow, and grass. They were sent to the Sponge Exchange in Nassau, where buyers estimated the weight and quality, and made their bids. Sponging was a great boom for all facets in the Bahamian economy. Over 5,000 men and boys were engaged in gathering at sea, and over 250 men and women were employed in sorting, clipping, and packing on shore. Shipbuilding was also greatly increased due to the industry. 

In 1870, wrecking was still the primary industry of the Bahamas, until more people realized the value of sponges, and it became the number one livelihood of the Bahamian people.

Sponging went on and on, while other industries fell to the wayside. Up until 1925, it was thought that sponging would endure forever, and become more and more profitable. At that time the income of a sponge fisherman soared to approximately 200,000 pounds.   

Although there were no African harvest festivals, Bahamians improvised words and music to sing about the harvests of sponges, pineapples, tomatoes and conch. A local song, "Sponger Money Never Done" reflected the durability and prosperity.

A series of hurricanes beginning in 1926, did severe damage to the sponge beds, and overfishing took its toll. This was a matter of serious concern because sponging was such an important part of the country's economy. By 1932, sponge fishermen were having a difficult time making a living, and vessel owners and outfitters were losing money. 

Hope was revived by the potential of cultivation. A grown sponge could be cut into a large number of pieces, and each piece would survive and grow to maturity if secured to a stone and placed on a seabed. Many people began to cultivate sponges, however it took at least four years between planting and reaping. In the meanwhile, the natural beds which were relied on by many were being depleted.

The Imperial Government decided to conduct the "Sponge Fisheries Investigation," headed by Dr. F.G. Walton Smith, to promote conservation and continued productivity. Unfortunately, in 1938 disaster struck when a deadly malady affected sponges in the south-eastern Bahamas, and spread throughout the islands. Within a few months over 90 per cent of Bahamian sponges were dead, and the beds were closed for fishing in the hopes of regeneration amongst the surviving sponges. 

Sponge fishing thus came to an abrupt halt in 1939 and 1940, when this blight destroyed almost all the sponges. Attempts to revive the industry in the 1950's were also unsuccessful due to the introduction of the cheaper mass-produced synthetic sponge.

These clean and neatly made artificial sponges completed the destruction of what was once a vibrant industry.

It destroyed the livelihood of many, and worldwide conflict heightened the depressed economy. Finally, in 1936, the long dead salt industry was revived in Inagua, and in 1937 the Bahamas experienced its best tourist season in history, with 34,351 arrivals. 

The Bahamas Historical Society (Nassau) was founded in 1959 to stimulate interest in Bahamian history and to collect and preserve artifacts. For more in depth information into the sponging industry in the Bahamas, you’ll find Paul Albury’s, The Story of the Bahamas, (Macmillan Publishers, London & Basingstoke, 1975), at most bookstores and libraries.