TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. - Prepare to meet a local legend in Tarpon Springs! A man whose hands possess a talent admired worldwide.
He's not just a craftsman; he's the heartbeat of the town, and he embodies "What's Right With Tampa Bay."
Picture this: nestled along the Anclote River stands an aging aluminum building that holds a treasure trove of memories for Nickolas Toth.
"Started coming down here to the shop when I was probably three years old or so," Toth said.
His teenage years were spent alongside his grandfather, mastering a nearly forgotten art: handcrafting sponge diving helmets.
"When he did do a helmet, and I was little, and I'd watch, it was like the coolest thing because to me; it looked like [a] science fiction robot head or something from the 1950s," Toth said.
With more than a century of family tradition, they've molded brass, copper, and glass into functional helmets. Toth has been at the helm for over 40 years, infusing not just functionality but an artistic touch into each creation.
"I'm trying to go beyond just making a functioning piece of equipment," said Toth. "Which it is. It's fully functional. However, I try to take it that extra mile and add the aesthetic element to it. And as an artist, the reason I do that. I want to draw you in, so it's you don't see just a piece of equipment."
Crafting a single helmet takes about 350 hours. A meticulous process resulting in only five helmets annually.
"Very few people are using the helmets now. Here in Tarpon, it's just Saint Nicholas boat lines, the exhibition boat, which is an authentic sponge boat with the crew," Toth added.
In the mid-80s, National Geographic took a deep dive into the sponge world with a special called 'Sponge Divers of Tarpon Springs.'
"Two very well-known photographers and producers," said Toth. "They were doing it for the National Geographic. And it was on - I remember it being on TBS."
In crafting beautiful pieces, he not only uses his hands but also keeps alive the rich cultural heritage of Tarpon Springs' sponge diving tradition.
"I take a lot of pride, not just for my family. You know, I represent, you know, when I do this, I represent my family. But I take a lot of pride being part of this industry and all the families, you know, that it took to create this," Toth said.
Toth makes all sorts of parts for fishermen and boats in his machine shop.