National Geographic : 1955 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine watch Nature's endless eat-or-be-eaten drama in the clear water of the Gulf. Grotesque octopuses edged warily out of their lairs; chunky groupers, hovering motionless near by, waited to gulp them down if they came within reach. Sinister-looking sting rays flapped in from the channel, moving their fins rhythmically as they inspected the bottom for hermit crabs in search of their own breakfast of minute barnacles clinging to sea grass. A dusky shark glided silently behind a sting ray, await ing the opportune moment to dash in and slice off a fin, then devour the cripple. Hoisting anchor, we cruised up the Anclote River and snuggled into a berth at the Tarpon Springs dock beside the sponge-fishing vessel Evdokia. Capt. George Billiris, her owner, boasted that the 30-year-old ship is still one of the sturdiest members of the famous sponge fleet. Dozens like her bobbed side by side, bows to the quay.* Evdokia, regarded as a "lucky" ship, holds an enviable record for her hauls of sponges. Her basic design-and that of her sister ves sels-has been used by Greek fishermen for centuries. No major changes, except addition of engines, have ever been made. Fried Octopus for Breakfast The old-world atmosphere of Tarpon Springs is much the same as in a seaside Greek village. Water Wagon's crew sauntered about the cobbled waterfront; on Athens Street we joined sponge divers and deckhands at a cof fee shop (page 66). In near-by restaurants the preferred breakfast is fried squid and octopus, sweet pastry, and tiny cups of strong Greek coffee. Later in the day we threaded our way up the Anclote in Water Wagon, moving from deserted marshland into virgin forest. Be neath a bluff two Negro fishermen squatted on a bit of sandy shore. "Catching anything?" I asked. "Sheepshead," one of them shouted. "They're the smartest fish! You can't catch a sheepshead till you learn to pull before he bites. It's the feelin' of the water that you yank on! If you wait for a sheepshead to bite, it's too late. He's done got your bait nipped off neat." Thirty miles north of the Anclote we ap proached the Weekiwachee. Indians gave the stream its name, which means "little water." At its mouth a strong, sparkling flow greeted us. Clear as air, the river is alive with fish. Red bay trees, bright with shiny berries, grow tall on each side of the Weekiwachee and intertwine overhead. When crushed, the leaves give off a delightful aroma. Edging the river banks, cypresses and giant oaks fight for space with magnolias, swamp maples, and sweet gums. Vines twine wherever there is space, and towering sabal palms push their fronds above the forest roof to reach the outer air. Occasionally a stand of jack pines and spruce pines takes over, entwined with wild grapes and often festooned with the three leafed gangster of the forest-poison ivy. Water Wagon Climbs over Barriers As we made our way up the mirrorlike river's verdant tunnel, we felt as Alice must have felt when she stepped through the look ing glass (page 56). Few boats of any size have attempted the passage up the Weekiwachee. Even in Water Wagon it was no trip for the timid. Some of the dead trees in our path we lifted; others we pressed down and then vaulted over in a burst of full power. Precise timing was required in cutting the motors at the right moment to avoid piling into other obstruc tions. At some places the river was completely blocked; at others it was so narrow we had to cut away the banks and pull the boat through with block and tackle (page 63). Around every curve our perspiring efforts were rewarded. Wild orchids flourish on the river's tangled banks, and tall, graceful pick erelweed, called wampee by the Indians, grows thickly at the water's edge. Our craft sent wood ducks bursting into flight. Black-crowned night herons, Florida gallinules, and limpkins were plentiful. Tall gnarled trees supported the tangles of osprey nests; the high-voiced fish hawks wheeled above them. Anhingas (snakebirds) hid behind drift wood branches and eyed us warily. Swimming with head and about 12 inches of neck show ing, they looked like prehistoric reptiles. At a distance one would never guess that birds were attached to these sinister "serpents." At Weekiwachee Spring, the headwaters of this challenging river, our lights picked up a man standing on the dock. He wore a re *See "Sponge Fishermen of Tarpon Springs," by Jennie E. Harris, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, January, 1947.