How sport climbing is helping to revitalize a Greek island

Kalymnos, once famed for its sea sponge fishermen, now draws adventurers to its mountains.

For more than 50 years, Antonis Kampourakis woke at dawn, strapped on fins and a mask, and dived deep into the Aegean Sea. His aim? To harvest the valuable sea sponges that sustained the Greek island of Kalymnos for centuries.

He’s just one of the many locals who have ties to this traditional work, which was often passed down in families through generations. When a catastrophic disease began decimating the sea sponges in 1986, the islanders’ main source of income also plummeted.

But then a new focus emerged, one that looks to the island’s landscape—its steep cliffs, stalactite caves, fine limestone crags, and breathtaking sea views from the top.

Now the barren yet picturesque island is one of the world’s top spots for sport climbing, a type of rock climbing in which the routes are fixed with permanent anchors. The activity is helping to revitalize the local economy, drawing both amateur and expert adventurers, and is gaining global attention this year as a new Olympic event.

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A culture immersed in the sea

Sea sponge harvesting—a pursuit mentioned in Homer’s eighth-century B.C. epics—has been practiced in Kalymnos since the 1800s. The sponge fishermen became legendary, descending to depths of more than 250 feet and using resourceful yet risky techniques, from free diving naked and weighted with a marble stone to breathing through a long hose that snaked to the surface.

“Although hard and dangerous, for me this job was a fun fair. I longed for daybreak to come to plunge into the sea,” says the 80-year-old Kampourakis. “For 52 years I kept diving for sponges, even a thousand times per day … but it was well-paid, I raised six daughters, bought houses for their families,” says Kampourakis, whose likeness is depicted on a local statue honoring the sponge divers.

While islanders were sponge hunting, merchants were selling the “Kalymnian gold” at far-flung markets. “There used to be 200 to 250 sponge boats, sailing all over Greece and the eastern Mediterranean,” says Nikolas Papachatzis, a sponge trader. “Now only a few remain.”

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The decades-long intensive harvesting, the disease that hit the sponges in the 1980s, and the increased frequency of extreme climatic events since the 1990s all combined to nearly wipe out the sponge harvesting industry.

Now the local sponges are scarce, but surprisingly the sponge trade still flourishes. Because of the islanders’ know-how, sponges from elsewhere are processed here.

“Everything is done by hand, sponge by sponge; cleaning, washing, trimming,” says Papachatzis. Kalymnos accounts for 80 percent of sponge exports worldwide, and it imports sponges from tropical waters to satisfy the demand. “A Mediterranean sponge, though, has an unsurpassed quality and a 10-year life span,” he says.

As global efforts focus on reducing the use of plastic, natural sponges may seem more sustainable than artificial ones. Yet care should be taken with the remaining fragmented sponge populations, says Thanos Dailianis, a marine biologist at the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research.  

“For sponge fisheries to continue, it is imperative to establish sound management schemes and endorse sustainable practices,” he says. “Cutting part of the sponge instead of wholly removing it from the substrate is proven to minimize harvesting impact, since it allows the remaining part to regenerate.” Dailianis also advocates for the designation of protected zones, which he says, “can have significant long-term benefits by promoting restocking of depleted areas.”

The rise of sport climbing

While sponge harvesting was declining, an altogether different industry was emerging. Along the island’s coastline, high yellowish-orange cliffs rise from the sea—dramatic features that caught the eye of Italian climber Andrea Di Bari when he vacationed on Kalymnos in 1996. Enchanted by the rock’s high quality, he returned the following year with climbing partners in tow to open up 43 routes.  

Published images by photographer Andrea Gallo grabbed more climbers’ attention. Then Aris Theodoropoulos, a mountain guide, climbing instructor, and author of the Kalymnos Climbing Guidebook, collaborated with the municipality to help make Kalymnos a bona fide climbing destination.

“In 1999 we noticed some strange guys, loaded with gear, then saw their figures hanging on the rocks,” says George Hatzismalis, head of the Municipality Tourist Office. “Soon, we started looking for what interventions should be made in order for this to evolve: opening new routes, maintaining them, organizing a climbing festival.”

The first festival took place in 2000, and since then there have been 13 more, with the biggest names of the climbing scene ascending the most impressive routes and putting up new ones. Today there are about 90 climbing sectors and 3,900 routes, most single pitch and ranging in difficulty from 4c to 9a (beginner to pro). Neighboring Telendos island offers an additional seven sectors and 800 routes, some multi-pitch.

“The numbers are continuously growing,” says Lucas Dourdourekas, president of the volunteer Kalymnos Rescue Team and a top sport climber/instructor. The combination of “the huge vertical walls, the negative cliffs, the routes with pockets, the great variety and all close to each other … and the spectacular sea view while climbing,” he says, “is awesome.”

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But climbers here don’t have to be experts. The easily accessible routes accommodate different levels and styles, from adrenaline seekers to more-cautious amateurs and families.

“Kalymnos is great vacation climbing, good for beginners,” the elite American climber Alex Honnold previously told National Geographic. “They have these huge caves with huge stalactites and it’s just like super fun featured limestone, but then you can swim if you want in the sea after and it’s really beautiful.”

Spring and fall are the best seasons for climbing, but the island’s climate is mild year-round. “The rise of climbing led to the extension of the tourist season, from three or four to at least eight months,” says Nikolaos Tsagkaris, president of Kalymnos’ Hoteliers Association, “with all the subsequent benefits to the local community.”

Typically some 12,000 climbers arrive each year to challenge their skills and stamina. Some have bought houses on the island and others waited out coronavirus lockdowns here. “The bond between climbers and locals is strong,” says Hatzismalis. “Personal relationships are developed, visitors are not strangers.” Kalymnos has also become popular as a vacation spot for non-climbers, who fish, dive, or swim.

A sustainable tourism model?

While the sea continues to play a vital role in island life, the cliffs’ popularity seems here to stay, especially now that the pandemic has brought about a new emphasis on travel destinations with a host of outdoor activities.  

“Our mountains, once a curse on our island, inaccessible and non-cultivable, have now become a blessing,” says the mayor, Dimitris Diakomichalis. “Our goal is to make good use of them in all possible ways … such as developing hiking and mountain biking.”

Kalymnos has claimed a place on the global climbing map, but for it to be sustainable in the long term, the island’s natural heritage needs to be safeguarded. Officials established the New Route Protocol in 2018 in an effort to prevent uncontrolled expansion, ensure safety, and minimize the negative impact on the environment.

(Conservationists are questioning the environmental effects of climbing chalk.)

 “No interventions were made to the natural surroundings, and the climbers, being environmentally conscious, they appreciate the untouched scenery,” says Hatzismalis. “As long as places of archaeological interest and age-old formations, such as Grande Grotta’s stalactites, continue to be respected,” he says, potential challenges can be avoided.

As global tourism returns, many locals see a tip-top future for climbing in Kalymnos—and perhaps beyond. “With care and maintenance of present and future routes,” says Dourdourekas, “she can be a model for other destinations.”

Maria Atmatzidou is an Athens-based writer who covers travel and archaeology. She was previously editor-in-chief of the Greek editions of National Geographic and National Geographic Kids magazines. Follow her on Instagram.

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