STORY by DOMINICK TAO
PHOTOS by TIM HUSSIN
When Sydney Marshal is underwater, he can’t hear much. Just the sound of his lungs drawing in and expelling air through his snorkel.
Every time he dives in the waters off the coast of the island he was born on, raised on, but hopes not to die on, he still finds himself in awe at the vast strangeness of everything around him.
Every time he visits the reefs around his home settlement of Red Bays on Andros Island, he says he visits a place where God has been.
“They the most beautiful thing I ever see,” he says. “Like someone went down and carve it, plant it.”
But for Sydney, 37, the shallow, turquoise waters of Andros hold more than just natural beauty. Beneath the waves, there is also nature’s bounty.
Like a dolphin, or a man who has spent his entire life living off the sea, Sydney glides when he dives toward the bottom, wearing only a mask, snorkel and “floppers,” his nickname for diving fins.
As he nears the sea floor, 10 feet under, the search for his prey takes over. His head scans left, right, left, right, in sharp, quick motions. He is a predator here, almost as much at home as the sharks and barracudas he shares the water with.
Then, Sydney spots his target, his treasure.
It’s no fish, or even a pearl-carrying clam. It’s a dark, slimy mass rooted to a rock on the white-sand sea bottom.
It’s a sea sponge -- the course and porous organism used to scrub bodies and buildings for thousands of years, the same material that was soaked in vinegar and given to Jesus Christ on the cross before his final breath.
Sydney sees the sponge below as a cash crop ready for harvest. Like many of his kin back in Red Bays, a 300-person village on the Northwest corner of Andros, sponges are his lifeblood.
He must sell them to survive.
With a flourish of his floppers, Sydney comes within arm’s reach of the sponge, which is about a foot high and half as wide.
In a single, fluid motion, his arm arcs toward the black, football-shaped creature. In Sydney’s hand, there’s an old, rusty knife with a blue plastic handle and a broken-off point.
The sponge is easily hewn, even by the dull blade.
Sydney severs the sponge at its base, with just enough living cells clinging to the rock to grow back for another year’s harvest.
When the sponge’s body floats free of its roots, the diver grabs it out of the water with his bare fingers. He torpedoes toward the shimmering canopy of water and sky above. He breaks the surface, and holds his prize to the morning sun.
In his hand, Sydney holds less than a 50 cent profit -- but is also half a dollar further from the debt waiting for him back on land.
Nearby, Sydney’s boat, or rather, his boss’s boat -- a 15-foot skiff with a 90-hp outboard motor -- rocks as gentle waves lap against its fiberglass hull. He floats next to it, and like a shot-putter, launches the waterlogged sponge into the vessel.
Thump. The four-pound mass hits the deck. Squish. It bounces, and comes to a stop next to the dozen other sponges in the craft, which are beginning to dry and die in the Bahamian heat.
When Sydney is on a sponging trip, usually with three other spongers for two weeks at a time, he repeats this process for hours.
Swim, dive, cut, surface, toss and then swim some more.
He and his fellow spongers work until the boat is full and they need to stop at a familiar key to store their harvest under tarps until they can return to bring the booty back to Red Bays, the center of the sponge industry on Andros.
“It’s hard. Very hard,” Sydney says. “De’ whole sponging life is hard.”
The Beating Heart of Red Bays
Red Bays is a place embroidered with tradition and accustomed to hardship. Most of its residents either live off the sea, like Sydney, or subsist on whatever they can weave, carve and then sell to the few tourists who pass through.
Most of the homes in the settlement are squat, cinderblock rectangles, many of which remain half-built and partially painted.
Rumors circulate that when Andros was a popular transit point for drug runners in the ‘80s, some of the drug money made it to Red Bays, which allowed the settlement to grow.
But over the past two decades, says Bertram A. Newton, Red Bays’ 82-year-old preacher who has lived in the settlement most of his life, harvesting and selling sponges accounts for more than a third of the money trickling into -- and out of -- locals’ pockets.
And nearly every dollar connected to sponges in Red Bays goes through the hands of one man: Pete “the Greek” Skaroulis.
If sponging and the sea are the lifeblood of Red Bays, 76-year-old Pete is the settlement’s beating heart.
The Skaroulis System
The Greek waits at his metal and particleboard desk as the morning rains subside and the roosters crow and the schoolgirls in their burgundy skirts, long socks and white blouses walk to the bus stop.
He stares out the open door of his boxy, concrete-gray sponge warehouse in Red Bays, which triples as his office, apartment and a hangout for his men.
Pete takes a long drag from a half-finished cigarette. After a moment, he exhales, letting the tendrils of smoke stream from his nostrils and tumble from his lips. He snuffs the butt in a seashell he uses as an ashtray.
Before the morning cool turns into stifling midday humidity, Pete will be hard at work, too busy even to eat. He is the largest employer in Red Bays -- and the biggest moneylender. Most of the men in the settlement, at one point or another, have called him both boss and creditor.
Somewhere in a stack of standard-rule composition notebooks on his desk, Pete has the name and debt records of nearly every fisherman and sponger in Red Bays.
Kenny owes Pete $634. Jim, he's behind $833. Leon only needs to pay back $300. And Sydney Marshal, fresh from a day on the water, owes $600 even.
Most of the charges in the ledger are what the men pay Pete to even go out to sea in the first place. He buys the gas, owns the boats and supplies most of the gear, such as GPS units for far-ranging sponge hunting. The men borrow from him up front, and whatever product they bring back, Pete buys -- minus what he’s owed.
Sometimes, the sea is reluctant to give up parts of itself to the spongers. The men often come back after weeks on the water owing more than when they left.
Some are forced to borrow again, to leave their families for sponges on credit, just to break even.
Most spongers resent this dependence -- but few have other options.
“There ain’t no other jobs,” said Eardley Culmer, a sponger who works for Pete. “Most got a family to feed.”
When it comes time for his men to pay up, though, Pete says he doesn’t charge interest. He laughs when the question even comes up.
“I’m lucky if I can collect,” he says.
Pete, who immigrated to the U.S. from Greece and worked in a steel mill to put his three sons through college, says work is work -- and those who have jobs in Red Bays should feel lucky.
Pete’s breakfast is caffeine and nicotine. He pot-boils his own coffee. He smokes Rothman’s King Size filters, at least a pack every day.
This morning is a lot like most other mornings for Pete since he moved to Andros nearly a decade ago. He wakes up before sunrise after going to bed at 10 p.m. He often eats only once a day. It doesn’t bother him, though.
Work is his rocket fuel.
When the topic of his life’s work history comes up, Pete eagerly speaks up in his usual voice -- smoke-stained and gravely, with a noticeable Greek accent. He enjoys telling his story, starting when he was 26 and immigrated to the U.S.
“When I came to the ‘States, I had no English, no nothing,” he says. “In five years, I saved $15,000 working as a second helper in a steel mill.”
With the money he saved, he went back to Greece -- and bought, literally, tons of sponges. By 1986, Pete said, he had made enough money buying and selling sponges to comfortably retire.
But, Pete, who has worked nearly every day of his life, can’t stop. Even in his old age, even after a fish poisoning cut off circulation to his limbs and claimed a finger and all of his toes, and even after the loss of his wife to leukemia, Pete can’t quit.
That personal drive leaves Pete with little patience for the antics and loose spending of some who work for him on the island.
When Pete got the call that an inattentive crew member on his newly purchased craw-fishing boat had left the craft dead in the water, Pete was reminded why he is constantly shaking his head.
A Long Recharge
The rain’s coming down in million-droplet sheets, louder and harder than any of the crew have seen in months. The din on deck is deafening. The men need to communicate in shouts fired from distances normally reserved for whispers.
Two gas generators are roaring at their full throaty tilt, burning $5-a-gallon gasoline. They’re supplying the power for the job at hand. Someone left the batteries connected to the engines for three days. The cells had gone dead. Until the batteries are recharged, the vessel will remain at dock, dead in the water, burning time. Burning money.
Standing over the 40-foot fishing boat’s open engine compartment are six Bahamian men -- the crew -- and Pete.
The men are joking with each other, shouting, drinking and boiling freshly-caught pastel red, blue and green crabs on a portable propane stove.
This will be their last day on land for a while. After today, it’s two weeks of salt water and long dives for crawfish, the thing to catch when the sea sponge season is winding down.
Pete isn’t saying much. He’s angry. The men were too busy with their marijuana, booze and women to pay attention to the batteries, he said. That’s why he’s now out at Morgan’s Bluff harbor during a tropical thunderstorm, waiting for batteries to recharge, waiting for the next man to ask him for a cash advance to buy a few more $3 Guinness Foreign Extra longnecks from a nearby bar.
After two hours of waiting, the Greek is satisfied. The boat is ready to go. He wouldn’t be able to sleep otherwise.
He gets into his white Ford F-150 pickup truck. It’s a newer model -- probably the only one like it on the Island. People know him by it.
Before he drives away from the harbor, down the Queen’s Highway, and back to Red Bays, Pete lets off some steam.
“They come in all nasty, the food, the drinking -- they’re all drunks,” he says.
Before he leaves, one more crewman comes up to his truck window. He wants a $20 bill for more beer.
The Sponge Factory
Pete’s house is the second on the right when entering Red Bays from the lone paved road leading out to the island’s main highway. The place is hard to miss.
Hundreds of half-processed sea sponges lay on weathered tarps across Pete’s front lawn. The orange and yellow sponges are waiting to be sorted and flown to his sponge factory in Tarpon Springs, Fla. -- the now-weathered sponge mecca of the U.S.
In Tarpon Springs, two of Pete’s three sons tend the sponge processing, retail and wholesale operation the family owns there. The third son got into computer science instead.
The family business is why Pete came to Andros to begin with. He went where the sponges were plentiful and healthy. On the Gulf Coast of Florida, regulations prohibit harvesting in many areas, and sponge beds there have been decimated by harmful algae blooms.
But in the Bahamas, regulation is lax, sponges are abundant and export tariffs are low, about 1 percent.
At the Sponge Factory, Pete’s retail store in Tarpon Springs, a high-quality grass sponge can sell for 10 times the amount paid to sponge divers like Sydney Marshal.
Sydney, who sponged on Andros for 10 years before Pete arrived, said he feels the prices Pete gives him are unfair, even though he admits other buyers would probably pay the same, or even less.
“It’s crookedness spread around,” he said. “From my young time, we used to get a better price.”
Sydney says in the late ‘80s, a high-quality grass sponge would get him $2. Today, he says, he gets about $1.50.
“We don’t get the right treatment,” he says.
But when Pete offers Sydney $50 to deliver a mechanic to his crippled craw-fishing boat, which broke down shortly after leaving port after the battery problem was fixed, Sydney puts his resentment aside.
He jumps into the bed of Pete’s pickup. Pete drives to the local hardware store to buy coolant and other tools the mechanic might need.
On the way, Sydney shares his dreams.
More than anything, Sydney wants to get away. He wants to move to Miami, meet a beautiful Colombian woman and become a famous rap star, like the Fifty Cent and Tupac portraits that are printed on his T-shirts.
He tells stories about how his aunt once found a golden cup in a fountain, but every time she tried to pick it up, it fell through her fingers.
“You’re supposed to cut your hand every time you see treasure,” he explains.
Before noon, Sydney is back at the sponge docks of Red Bays with the mechanic, a friend of his named Jeff.
The two prep a skiff for the 30-minute ride to the fishing boat – for Sydney, a welcome escape.
The Ties That Bind at the End of the Line
When his wife died a few years ago, Pete grew a full mourning beard.
He’d lost his lifelong companion and best friend.
The couple lived together on the island for years. Amid his work, the two built a home. Pete was happy.
“I had a good time here when my wife was alive,” Pete says.
But now, he is lonely.
“This is the time in life you need a companion,” he says.
When the suitors came, suggesting he take another wife, Pete scoffed.
“You’re stupid to get married at 76 years old,” Pete says. “But I had a lot of offers, you know.”
Instead, Pete, who acts naturally around the island women, calling them “baby,” or “love,” chooses to date, swearing by the miracle of Viagra.
And, he has a dog -- a fluffy, cotton-ball-like puppy he calls Spoogy.
While Spoogy has a calming affect on Pete, acting as a companion and something to care for, the overly friendly Spoogy is a lousy guard dog.
After a day of broken engines and other usual trouble, Pete does something out of character -- he stays out late for a beer, sitting at a restaurant in another Androsian town with two women he’d just met until after 10 p.m., according to his statement to the Bahamian police.
He gets home that evening and finds his apartment had been ransacked. His large stash of cash, $5,500, mostly in American $20s, had been stolen from its hiding place in a suitcase he keeps in his room.
The next day, Pete is incredulous. Every prejudice he held about young, unemployed islanders comes out in a rush of curses and pledges to leave.
If they don’t respect me, he says, let’s see how these people do without me.
As he sits in his plastic desk chair, Pete tells a friend who came by to console him what he is pondering.
“After I take care of the sponges, I’m leaving for good,” he says. “No matter what you do for these people, they are ungrateful.”
The threat is taken to heart by many in Red Bays. Nobody, it seems, wants Pete to leave -- both because he is a friend to many, and because he holds the settlement together.
The conversations down at Jackie’s, the only restaurant and bar in Red Bays, are revealing.
“If he leave, we all be punish,” one man says. “If Mr. Pete has to go, all we be doin’ then is diggin’ crabs.”
“If he go, it gonna be hard for us,” another says. “I want to make my money, I don't want to take it.”
“It’ll hurt Red Bay’s more than you know if he go,” an older man grumbles. “I ain’t staying. If he go, I go, too.”
Jacquelyn, the owner of Jackie’s, visits Pete herself. She looks him in the eye. The two are friends. She cooks him dinner sometimes.
“If you go, Pete, this place gonna’ be shaky,” she says. “Red Bays gonna’ be real shaky.”
A Sponger’s Dream
Sydney pilots the skiff over the turquoise-blue shallows, careful to avoid the white-topped sandbars. He finds a deep enough spot and pulls back on the throttle.
Instead of going directly back to Red Bays after dropping off the mechanic, Sydney took a more scenic route: the channels that cut through the light blue halo of knee-deep water on Andros’ west coast.
The skiff begins to drift gently on the waveless surface, dozens of starfish visible on the sand below. Sydney reaches for what he calls his “lucky bag.”
Inside, he keeps his borrowed GPS unit -- and a pouch of marijuana he saves for serene moments, like the one now surrounding him.
He rolls a joint with a strip of brown paper bag. He takes a drag, and stares off at a far-away sliver of land on the horizon. Out here, he’s free.
“I'm gonna' be a famous musician someday,” he says, talking about the dreams he wishes would come true.
After enjoying the smoke a little longer, Sydney brings the outboard back up to full throttle. He points the small vessel back toward Red Bays, the place he wishes he could leave behind, and returns to his life as a sponger on Andros Island.
Produced and designed by Hedda Prochaska, Co-produced by John Kaplan
University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. All Rights Reserved 2008.