Save Spectacular: Sherman’s Lagoon Explores the Sanctuary System


The characters of the Sherman’s Lagoon comic strip are joining our Save Spectacular celebration with a “road trip” in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Marine Sanctuary System! Sherman the shark and several of his friends will visit several sanctuaries throughout the month of October, including Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the northwest Hawaiian Islands, Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary in Georgia, Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary in Maryland, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Washington, and finally the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. We spoke with Jim Toomey, creator of Sherman’s Lagoon, to learn more about Sherman’s adventures across the National Marine Sanctuary System! 

How did you first become interested in the ocean and national marine sanctuaries?

My interest in the ocean goes way back to when I was drawing with crayons. At that age, there’s a blurry line between the real world and your imaginary world. We see that in comic strips like Calvin & Hobbes. For me, drawing was a big part of that discovery process. The act of drawing helped me notice and understand the details of the natural world – the spots on a leopard or the shades of gray in a thunderstorm. When I discovered the underwater world, it opened an entirely new world to me. The colors, the patterns, the places, the animals. Some animals were tiny, others were the size of a city block. There are places in the ocean that have never seen the light of day. Ever. For billions  of years they’ve been lying in darkness. For me, the ocean became that fantasy world that I could learn more and more about, and I did.

Much later in life, as a syndicated cartoonist, I wanted to find a way that my art could do more than simply provide a daily chuckle. I knew I had a large audience, and it was not necessarily the same audience that watches television, so I saw my comic strip as a channel for bringing the ocean to the living rooms and kitchen tables of millions of readers who might otherwise not think much about it.  I saw the National Marine Sanctuary system as the perfect way to connect with so many of those readers. Everyone knows what a national park is. We Americans love our parks. I frequently take Sherman to the sanctuaries so that my readers can develop the same love for them that they do for our parks.



What inspires you and your work? What is your creative process like?

Sherman’s Lagoon is a blend of fish humor and human nature. Sometimes I describe it as a strip with people in fish costumes. My characters have people problems, like bad dates and failing businesses, but they also have marine animal problems, like basic survival in a food web, or migrating to find a mate. When I write my strip, I frequently reflect on the personal experiences I’ve had recently – the kind most people can relate to, like raising kids or doing a home project – and look at it from an ocean animal’s perspective. How would a shark “raise” kids? How would that be different from, say, how a seahorse raises its kids that number in the hundreds?

How do your cartoons help communicate the importance of conserving our ocean and coasts? How does art (and humor) make issues facing our ocean accessible to audiences all around the world?

The one rule I try to abide by when I write a comic strip is to be apolitical. I firmly believe that our environment is a universal problem, and that my readers, regardless of their politics, should be able to see the intended humor and understand the “message.” Frequently, my comics simply expose my readers to the many wonders of the ocean that we didn’t learn in high school science class. Sherman and Megan go off to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the longest mountain range on the planet, to go skiing. It’s science fiction with a dash of science reality. Sometimes, I take on a marine conservation issue like shark finning or bottom trawling, that provides a fish’s perspective.

Art promises some kind of emotional experience. Music can evoke sadness or joy, depending on the chords and the tempo. Cartoons usually promise a laugh or an insight. The promise of having an emotional experience, however fleeting, is the allure to art.



Which is your favorite national marine sanctuary that you (or Sherman!) have visited?

Gosh, now you’re asking me to pick a favorite child. I still have six or seven sanctuaries that my characters have not visited, so I will hold my answer for when I get a chance to explore all of them. And, as most of your readers know, comparing sanctuaries is not an apples-to-apples exercise. The Monitor is so different from Papahānaumokuākea, and they were created for different reasons.  The sanctuaries that emphasize heritage, like Mallows Bay, are fun as a writer because you can play with the elements of history and culture. The sanctuaries that boast a broader array of wildlife are fun because there are so many new and crazy characters to tell stories about.

What is your favorite marine species in the National Marine Sanctuary System?

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for sharks. When I dove in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary a few years ago, I dove with Caribbean reef sharks. They were curious and lively, like any land animal. And yet, the vast majority of the public is not at all concerned that sharks in general are threatened and being harvested at an unsustainable rate – thankfully not in our sanctuaries.

What would you like to see happen in the next 50 years for our ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes?

Wow, that’s a big answer, and I’m just a cartoonist. I think the US is making great strides through its sanctuary system and other policies to preserve our offshore environments. In the rest of the world, the ocean is a classic Tragedy of the Commons. It is a source of protein and fossil fuel and minerals and other commodities, and there’s a race to exploit the resources before another country gets it first. I would like to see the US apply more pressure internationally, to players such as China and the E.U., using its formative consumer power, to develop more international regulations to protect the ocean globally. On the domestic front, I see more and more sanctuary candidates being nominated, like Hudson Canyon. This is an encouraging trend. I’d like to see more and more of our marine,  estuarine and freshwater environments preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. Wallace Stegner said that our national parks were America’s best idea. That idea can be extended to national marine sanctuaries without any stretch of logic.