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Undersea life with a man in a boat
Illustration Photo by Jim Toomey

Sea Change

Cartoonist Jim Toomey hopes you’ll laugh at his environmental message

Jim Toomey (’83, D.E.L.-M.E.M.’08), a pilot and a graduate student were all sealed in a 10-foot titanium sphere. It was snug quarters – with no bathroom – for a long day on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico in the deep-sea submersible Alvin. Eventually the craft touched sandy bottom, two miles down. Alvin’s lights penetrated maybe 50 feet into the pitch dark, but everywhere they fell there was life: tube worms, crabs, sea cucumbers, an octopus and a 50-foot squid hovering above like a “kite from hell.”

“We sat at the base of this escarpment looking up at a sheer rock cliff,” he says of his 2014 dive, still awestruck. “You can see on the bathymetric charts that it does pretty much go straight up to a shelf that’s only a few hundred feet from the surface.”

Jim Toomey
Jim Toomey

A dive in Alvin is rare, and especially for a cartoonist like Toomey, who has produced the syndicated comic strip “Sherman’s Lagoon” since 1991. His characters are sharks and their sea creature neighbors, reflecting Toomey’s long-standing love of the ocean. But his strip isn’t all laughs, illuminating ecological concerns such as shark finning and plastic pollution in an accessible, non-preachy voice. It’s on the funny pages, but drawn by a cartoonist who has seen the deep seafloor with his own eyes, sailed across the Atlantic and studied environmental management alongside corporate and government experts.

With his comic strip in 150 newspapers, Toomey – who lives in Annapolis, Md. – has a broad platform. He has no interest in finger-wagging from this bully pulpit, and he doesn’t think that works anyway. Rule No. 1: Make the reader laugh. In Toomey’s world, nobody’s mood is ruined in the name of environmentalism.

“I’ve tried to sort of take a different tack,” he says. “That’s the route I’ve always wanted to go down, which is to amuse you a little bit while you’re learning.”

Conservation was always swimming around “Sherman’s Lagoon,” but it fully surfaced in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration reached out in 1998 to ask if Toomey could promote consumer awareness of environmentally sustainable seafood species. This was the first of many issues he’s eased into “Sherman’s Lagoon.”

“He comes across funny, but he’s actually really serious about trying to make a difference in this world,” says Laura Cassiani, chief advancement officer of ocean conservation nonprofit Mission Blue and an old friend of Toomey’s. (Mission Blue was founded in 2009 by pioneering marine biologist, oceanographer and Duke alum Sylvia Earle A.M.’56, Ph.D.’66.)

Toomey’s diligence led him back to Duke in 2006, to the Nicholas School of the Environment’s Master of Environmental Management program. If he was going to be talking about ecological issues, he knew he needed to understand them better.

“Here’s this cartoonist in a room full of environmental pros. I did a lot of scrambling just to get up to their level,” Toomey admits. “What surprised me is that a lot of these issues really are not complex. It’s political will.”

Then the ocean conservation crowd started noticing his work. He was asked to emcee award ceremonies. Earle invited him to give a TED Talk on a ship in the Galapagos. This led to Mission Blue board membership and, eventually, a stint as its executive director.

All the while, Toomey plugged away at his comic strip. It’s a job he can do anywhere – say, aboard a wandering sailboat. From August 2015 through June 2017, Jim and Valerie Toomey and their kids Madeleine (then 12) and William (then 10) lived aboard the 45-foot catamaran Sacre Bleu. They began their journey in France, hopscotched through the Mediterranean and crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Toomey’s book “Family Afloat,” published in August 2022, chronicles (and illustrates) the adventure.

“We were our own little nucleus of four people,” Valerie recalls fondly, laughing as she thinks back. “You remember that time we crashed into the piling? Whatever it was, it became part of the memory.”

This was four people, less connected to technology and more to each other. Valerie would do it again – no question.

“In a way, we never really moved back,” Jim says.

The Toomeys sold Sacre Bleu – it was too tall to pass under most bridges – but they also never fully reestablished themselves in Maryland. They already have put a deposit on the next sailboat, after all. Most critically, they returned from their long voyage even more conservation-minded. Now they use less water. Now they let leftovers cool before putting them in the fridge. It’s little things learned from two years afloat.

“It sounds a bit corny, but I’ll say it anyway – that the boat is a bit of a metaphor for the planet,” says Jim.  “Everything seems infinite on planet Earth but it’s not. You are really reminded of scarcity when you live on a boat.” There’s only so much food, so much fresh water, so much fuel. Don’t be surprised if that message shows up in a comic strip.