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Beneath the 12 Mile Reef

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Romeo and Juliet have nothing on Tony and Gwyneth, the star-crossed lovers in the drama "Beneath the 12 Mile Reef" (1953). In this version of the classic plot, Verona's noble houses of Montagu and the Capulet are replaced by two fishing crews at war over the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Tony (Robert Wagner) is from a Greek-American family of sponge divers. (Not for nothing, the Greeks are credited with developing the finest sponge divers in the world.) Tensions run high when he falls for Gwyneth Rhys (Terry Moore), whose family has a traditional though not legal claim over The Glades—one of the few remaining locations with the high quality sponges that fetch the best prices. In the end, the fates of both families depend on what happens at the 12 Mile Reef, a dangerous but beautiful location that holds the finest sponges of all.

The film raises issues that are as relevant today as they were more than 50 years ago. Like many American fishing communities, the Petrakis and Rhys clans are faced with the tension between tradition and a changing world, and must concern themselves with limited supplies, economic pressures and technological change. In the case of sponge diving, demand for natural sponges dropped off considerably after the 1940s, when the Du Pont company unveiled its synthetic cellulose sponges created from wood pulp, hemp and similar materials. Current estimates suggest that fewer than 20 percent of the sponges on the U.S. market are natural, though sustainable aquiculture—cultivation of these creatures for harvesting—is on the rise.

Though the movie jumps from scenes of divers underwater to crews motoring in to port with strings of sponges waving like banners, there's a critical (but less cinematic) step in turning the marine animals in to the squishy cleaning aids we know and love. The sponges, once hauled up from their beds, are traditionally laid out on deck with damp cloths over them until their flesh rots away, leaving the skeletons ready for use. Researchers worldwide are exploring options for developing an ecologically sustainable, economically viable natural sponge industry. With a growing demand for "green" products and advances in aquacultural techniques, the prognosis is promising.

The Science

Lynn Bohs

Lynn BohsBiologist Lynn Bohs of the University of Utah discusses sustainability, her work with new plant species, natural sponge harvesting and the film “Beneath the 12 Mile Reef.”


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Dr. Lynn Bohs

Research in Plant Biology

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