Science Policy & Funding Feature

Dive into Ocean Issues with Sherman’s Lagoon

Sherman’s Lagoon creator talks to Eos about providing light-hearted entertainment while weaving in ocean facts and larger messages about threats to the ocean and its creatures.

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Who knew there is so much drama underwater?

Every day, Sherman’s Lagoon, the popular comic strip, dishes up the goofy exploits of a happy-go-lucky shark, his wife, and their neighbors who live in a fictitious and mostly friendly tropical lagoon.

They take on such seemingly weighty matters as silly sea-oriented business ideas, dating in the depths, computer hassles, and fulfilling bucket lists and grocery lists. And as they go about their lives, their antics display their all-too-human foibles.

But the comic strip often ventures into deeper waters. It mixes in real and important information about the ocean and about the serious environmental issues that the characters sometimes encounter.

Just in the last few months, for instance, Sherman’s Lagoon story lines not only have revolved around schemes such as establishing a new underwater record for toppling dominoes but also have drawn attention to the recent World Oceans Day and the March for the Ocean. And in the past it has focused on marine debris, climate change, bottom trawling, overfishing, coral reefs under pressure, and other threats to the ocean and its creatures.

A panel of Sherman’s Lagoon that published on World Oceans Day, 8 June 2018, by Jim Toomey.
A panel of Sherman’s Lagoon that published on World Oceans Day, 8 June 2018. Credit: © Jim Toomey

Sherman’s Lagoon “is about trying to find that human connection while also sneaking a conservation message in or an ocean fact,” cartoonist and strip creator Jim Toomey told Eos.

Entertainment and a Little Bit More

Sherman’s Lagoon, which appears in more than 250 newspapers in North America, stars Sherman, the shark; Megan, who tries to keep her husband Sherman on a tight leash; Hawthorne, a party-pooping hermit crab; Filmore, a studious sea turtle; and Ernest, a nerdy fish driven to nefariousness.

“Fundamentally, I try to entertain. If I don’t do that, then I get fired,” Toomey mused. “So it’s entertainment, it’s storytelling, it’s hopefully evoking a little bit of a laugh or a giggle or amusement. And then if I can accomplish all that, I oftentimes will try to weave in something a little bit more.”

Two Sherman’s Lagoon strips from November 2017 on bottom trawling, by Jim Toomey.
Two strips, from (top) 1 November 2017 and (bottom) 7 November 2017 on bottom trawling, one of the many important ocean issues that Toomey has focused on in Sherman’s Lagoon. © Jim Toomey

Toomey said that he tries to weave in those larger messages in a way that keeps the comic strip fun and apolitical. “Environmentalism has become a kind of partisan issue, and it’s really important to keep [the strip] away from the politics,” he said.

However, he noted that a few decades ago there was far less partisanship on environmental issues. “Oftentimes, I’ll address an environmental issue, and people will email me and tell me to stop the liberal claptrap. My response is that it shouldn’t really be a red or a blue issue. It should be about our kids and about our Earth. So I try not to take sides in the politics too much, at least not overtly. And that way, I can preserve a bigger audience, I think.”

Toomey said that if he had a few minutes with President Donald Trump, he would tell the president that “whether you’re a hunter or religious, there is a lot of hidden environmentalism on the conservative side that you should pay attention to.”

Comic strip from 27 November 2009, highlighting the issue of marine debris. By Jim Toomey.
Sherman’s Lagoon comic strip from 27 November 2009, highlighting the issue of marine debris. Credit: © Jim Toomey

The Birth of the Comic Strip

The idea for the comic strip first took root when Toomey was about 12 years old. On a trip to the Caribbean, his father, a former U.S. Navy pilot, flew the family’s six-seat Cessna 210 aircraft about ~150 meters above the sea’s clear waters. The ocean appeared as more than “the big gray veneer” that Toomey had been used to seeing from a beach. Instead, during that flight he noticed the underwater landscape with its hills and valleys and realized that the ocean world “is just as rich” as the world on land.

“I saw a shark in a small lagoon, and for me that was the birth of Sherman’s Lagoon,” he said. “I was wondering what it would be like to get into the head of that shark.”

Toomey recalled thinking “how cool it would be to be that shark in that lagoon and have that whole lagoon to yourself and be the master of this place.”

It took him about 15 years to turn that initial inspiration into a comic strip. Toomey, who worked as a political cartoonist until he tired of the negativity and cynicism, remembers getting a book about sea life and thinking that “these characters are right out of central casting. Hollywood could not dream up a stranger cast of characters.”

Comic strip from 12 November 2009, referring to efforts to conduct a census of marine life, by Jim Toomey.
Sherman’s Lagoon comic strip from 12 November 2009, referring to efforts to conduct a census of marine life. Credit: © Jim Toomey

More Than a Creator of Comics

In addition to his comic strip and his many Sherman’s Lagoon books, Toomey has also done a number of humorous and educational short videos with the Pew Charitable Trusts, United Nations Environment Programme, and others. Here’s one, below, on ocean acidification:

He’s also given a TED talk about his work:

Toomey earned a master’s degree in environmental management in 2008 to help him better understand ocean issues “and how to wrap entertainment sweetness around a bitter pill of the environmental message.” Twice, he has received environmental hero awards from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2014, Toomey was the artist in residence on the DSV Alvin, a U.S. Navy deep-ocean submersible vehicle operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Court Jester

Sherman Lagoon’s creator Jim Toomey, flanked by Sherman the shark and Filmore the sea turtle.
Sherman’s Lagoon creator Jim Toomey, flanked by Sherman the shark (left) and Filmore the sea turtle (right). Credit: © Jim Toomey

The comic strip “is a little bit like a sitcom” because the story arc has to take you back to where you were at the beginning, he said. “Everybody has to be the same, in the same place, the same status, unlike, say, a novel or a movie where there is a radical upheaval and things are very different in the end.”

He maps out some of the story arc in advance, but not all of it. “You don’t plan it all out in the beginning. You just kind of go with the flow. It’s like improvising a bedtime story to a child,” said Toomey.

Is he trying to make a difference with the comic strip by incorporating environmental issues? “Sometimes I am, and sometimes I’m just trying to entertain,” he said. “I feel like there are other people who are actually doing the real work, and I’m kind of the court jester. I feel like the more I can tell the public, the better world we’ll have. But I don’t think everybody’s waiting for me to do that.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Dive into ocean issues with Sherman’s Lagoon, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO102725. Published on 16 July 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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