Just one sponge can be the home for over 12,000 tiny creatures in the waters of the Florida Keys

The sponge is one of the most important animals that lives in the Florida Keys waters. They filter the water through channels running throughout their bodies. The constant flow of water through their bodies traps silt and sediment from the water. This in turn helps to keep our waters clear.

As you’re diving the waters of the Florida Keys you’ll see them in every shape, size and color you can imagine. Some of them are so long that they remind me of a vine.

I use sponges to help me navigate the waters here. I know that when I see them, the bottom is rock. This means keep the engine punched if your in short water. You could damage your skeg or prop if you come off a plane.

There’s one variety here called a “fire sponge”. It’s red. I’ve been told that if you touch it, you’ll be on fire with the sting it gives you. I got news for you, that’s not the only one that can give you a hurt. There’s this green tubular variety with black around the holes that are all over it. That one attacked me on my neck during a dive a few years back. I got it again by another one a few dives later. My skin was red and swollen where it came in contact with me. It stayed that way for five or six days. I was in a hot pursuit of a lobster or a tropical fish when it happened and wasn’t paying attention to anything but the creature I was after.

Loggerhead Sponge Florida Keys

In the shallow waters the Loggerhead is the most common variety here. Its shaped like a big ball. I’ve had visitors out on the boat and when I drive past one they’ll tell me they just saw a tire in the water. They can surely look like one. They have one or more black spots in the center on the top. Some of them get really big. The top is flat and that’s where the black spot is. I’ve read that as many as 12,000 snapping shrimp live in just one Loggerhead sponge. This is also the home to many juvenile spiny lobster . All kinds of other larvae call this their home as well.

Sponges reproduce in either of two ways. The Loggerhead and others reproduce in the same way as the corals do. The eggs and sperm are released into the water column, and are mixed together there. They settle to the ocean floor and attach themselves there. Other varieties allow a piece to fall off. It then attaches itself to the ocean floor and grows there.

I think this is interesting about these strange shaped animals. If you put a piece into a blender and chop it up, any cells that aren’t damaged will grow into a new one. If you put pieces of several varieties into a blender together and blend them, any cells not damaged will grow up into that particular variety. They won’t mix with each other.

Barrel sponge, coral banded shrimp Florida Keys

The reef holds hundreds of varieties. One of the most common there is the barrel sponge. I’ve seen different creatures living in them. Some will have tropical fish and others will have shrimp. I saw on that had coral banded shrimp in it. They look like peppermint candy. That was a treat to see.

Sponges have been harvested commercially since the 1800's. It quickly became a thriving industry. Once they were plentiful, and the waters here were crystal clear. There are a number of spongers still picking them off the ocean floor on a daily basis. I have to tell you, I am so against this. We need for them to be able to repopulate the waters of the Florida Keys. It will help to keep our waters clear of silt and sediment, not to mention all the juvenile creatures that are killed when they are picked.

These guys live out on old dilapidated boats. They have several small boats tethered to the larger boat. I’ve watched them move from bay to bay taking all they find. When they’re poling around in the shallow waters looking for the next one to pick they toss old cooking oil on the water to help them see. It causes a slick to form and allows them to see down in the water better. This is also damaging to the ecosystem here. I’ve watched them pick a sponge and see that it’s not legally large enough to sell and toss it back. It’s dead now, so that’s one more that will never grow up and filter our waters. The price at market for each one is only pennies. I’ve also watched them drive the larger boats pulling the smaller ones thru the backcountry channels. These boats are way too large to be in the backcountry channels. They’re churning up mud and turtle grass the whole way. It leaves a big scar on the bottom from their activities. Where’s the cop on the water when this is happening?

harvested sponges Key West Sponges are now made from man-made products. They use rubber, plastic and cellulose-based synthetics to make them. These are much more effective in retaining water than the natural ones picked from our waters. There is no need to keep taking them from our waters.

I think every shower has at one time or another had a loofah sponge in it. Did you know that it’s not an animal? It grows on trees. It’s called the pepo tree. The loofah is the seed of the pepo fruit . Someone had a tree here a few years ago that grew them. I was standing their looking at the fruits hanging on the tree thinking how much that resembled the loofah. He gave me one. The outer skin was dark green. You let it get dry then you peel the skin off. There it is inside. It looks just like the ones in the stores. It’s filled with black seeds. I had to beat them out of it. I had no idea they grew on trees.

Next time your diving in the Florida Keys look around you at all the color and variety that are there on the reef because of the sponge.

Return from Sponges to Key West

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