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Original Issue

Turkish Plunge for a Sponge

Ah," said the headmaster of the primary school, where I was visiting at the time, "if you want to go diving for sponges, then Niyazi is your man! We will just have another glass of tea and then go round to the staff room and see if he is there."

The tourist hand-out maps of Turkey show an outline of the little Mediterranean island of Bozcaada with tiny figures grasping fish almost as large as themselves, or emerging from the sea clutching huge sponges. The seizing of fish by their tails or sponges by their roots, the leaflets inform you, is so much child's play. The idea had caught my fancy.

In the staff room Mr. Niyazi courteously left the marking of his papers, asked if I would like a glass of tea, and silently inspected the rubber flippers and the mask that I had with me. He then declared that we would, ìnsallah (if Allah so disposed things), get a boat and go out for sponges that very afternoon.

When we got down to the waterfront the headmaster announced that he, too, might like a trip out. Suleyman, the boatman, sculled a rowboat to the harbor steps and we all, headmaster, Niyazi and I, got in. That the headmaster was taking no active part in the diving seemed pretty clear. I checked to see whether he had brought towel and costume with him, and he had not.

There was a little difficulty in getting the inboard engine started, but finally it fired and we bumble-bumbled out of the harbor and coasted parallel to the island, keeping some 200 to 300 yards offshore. At a point presumably known from experience, Niyazi shouted to Suleyman to slow down and we drifted over a submerged reef. We found a depth of two to three feet of water underneath us, and on either side, Niyazi explained, there were easy depths of somewhere around 20 feet. Suleyman tied a boulder to a rope in the bow and cast the stone anchor out on to the reef: it would hold us, he said cheerfully, as long as the wind did not get up.

Niyazi was the first to change into his swimming costume, one of those old-fashioned voluminous affairs made of wool that reach almost to the knees, and while I was still changing he hopped over the side, picked up several small boulders from the reef and loaded them into the stern of the boat.

My own swimming costume was not of a particularly advanced design. On the other hand, it was certainly far more dynamic than Niyazi's. Made of nylon, no elastic round the waist, it consisted of conservatively cut black swimming trunks that laced up the sides with string. Niyazi gave one quick look and said, with marked disapproval, "useless" and, as an afterthought, "impossible."

As the Turks are a very modest people and their own swimming attire is always of the most orthodox design (Turkey is, to my mind, just a shade Victorian), I thought that Niyazi's "impossible" referred to the brevity of my costume, but "Have you any underpants?" he asked. "Let me see."

This seemed a strange prelude to sponge diving, but from my small heap of clothes I pulled out my underpants; these too were of nylon, and far briefer than my swimming costume. Niyazi groaned.

"Look," he shouted. He stood on the stern of the little boat, picked up one of the boulders he had dislodged from the reef, stretched the elastic waistband of his costume and placed a boulder against his stomach. When the elastic shot back into place, it held the rock to his stomach, increasing his weight by some 30 pounds.

"It is necessary," said Niyazi, speaking slowly, "to weight yourself to get down. Swimming down you use up all your energy and have no air in your lungs when you need it. You weight yourself. You breathe deep. You hold your nostrils. You jump."

So. To dive clutching lumps of rock was no go. Water is driven into the nostrils and, more important, once you have dropped the rocks in order to have your hands free, you shoot upward empty-handed.

With my swimming costume unsuitable, my underpants useless and the mere clutching of rock no good, we had reached an impasse.

Mr. Niyazi and the headmaster conferred about it in rapid Turkish. Then, to my surprise, I saw the headmaster rise and remove his trousers. Not only his trousers but his underpants. The headmaster, as well as being a good sort, was unexpectedly progressive. Instead of the usual Turkish drawstring arrangement, his underpants had an elastic waistband.

Thus it was, clad in the headmaster's drawers, laden with rock and with my nostrils closed, that I sank into the most perfect aquarium I have ever seen. Shoals of brightly colored fish flicked themselves away as I drifted down among them and came to rest on a strip of white sand between two brown ridges of rock.

Mud-gray sponges clung to the sides of the underwater ravine. I seized hold of the first piece I could see and prepared to do a quick release elastically and surface with it. But the more I tugged the more the sponge held fast. I transferred my hold to another piece of sponge. That clung even tighter to its rock. I jettisoned my ballast and shot to the surface empty-handed. Niyazi had three large sponges.

"No sponge, Mr. Peter?"

"Yes, but it won't come up."

I had shocked Mr. Niyazi again.

"Mr. Peter, the sponge is not a dead thing! It lives! It is an animal. When it feels you tugging, it holds tight. You must either take it at one quick grab before it suspects what you are about or you must use a chisel and chisel it off."

I made a second dive, prepared to catch the sponges unawares, but they had seen me coming. Again I tugged and again I came up empty-handed.

On the third dive off the reef I took along Niyazi's chisel tied to my wrist. A baby sponge, a very small one, let itself be chiseled off, but only very reluctantly and after much lacerating of its little body.

On the surface, standing in the shallow water on the reef, Niyazi cleaned his eight sponges and I cleaned my one. A continual wringing and squeezing drives clean seawater through the interstices and the sponge's blood, the color of grayish milk, is driven out. The first stage in the cleaning of a sponge is this beating of the blood out of it.

Although grateful to the capable Mr. Niyazi, and admiring, certainly, I have decided that I myself shall do no more sponge diving. Not only is it difficult, it is a blood sport.