A great white shark swam into the Chesapeake one day, but there wasn’t any panic or mayhem, just some friendly conversation. The shark’s name is Sherman, and he’s the star of the syndicated comic strip “Sherman’s Lagoon” by cartoonist and Chesapeake native Jim Toomey. As a little boy, Toomey says he spent a lot of time doodling and dreaming about what was under the ocean. Fast forward and now that doodler is syndicated in hundreds of newspapers in 30 foreign countries, has authored 18 books, and even gave a TED talk.
His passion for the ocean spills beyond the comic pages and into his personal life. Sailing has always been a part of Jim’s life. He remembers sailing on the Chesapeake as a boy when his family lived in Alexandria, VA. He spent time in San Francisco where he honed his skills as a sailor. Life brought him back to the Chesapeake where he’s raised his family on Weems Creek in Annapolis. Here he loves to crab, sail Optis, swim, and kayak with his wife and two kids.
Jim’s wife Valerie shares his love of the water, but she wanted more than weekend fun out on the Bay. She planted the seed for the family to cast off cruising. “My wife really wanted to do it. I was not as excited about it, so it was a bit of a role reversal,” says Jim. Valerie, Jim, and their two kids are in Antibes, France, right now on their Lagoon 450 Sacre Bleu. “My wife, Valerie, is French, and she got naming rights. Sacre Bleu is an homage to two things. One, my propensity to use a lot of profanities when things go wrong on the boat,” says Jim. “And two, it literally translates to ‘Sacred Blue,’ and is a tribute to our love for the ocean.”
Jim says that the ocean was the perfect place to find a cast of characters for a comic strip because the real life creatures underwater are way cooler than anything he could imagine. He says in his TED talk, “Every time I came up with a crazy cartoon character on the drawing board, I’d find something even crazier in the ocean.” His cast of sharks, hermit crabs, sea turtles, fish, and other ocean friends are funny, relatable, and silly, but they also often sneak in a dose of carefully crafted conservation into their adventures. “I try to make science interesting to comic strip readers. And occasionally I find a real environmental story, like shark finning, or ocean acidification, and I try to make those issues funny and interesting,” Jim remarks. “But ‘Sherman’s Lagoon’ is fundamentally a mainstream newspaper comic strip. Most of my story lines do not contain an environmental message.”
While the comic is aimed at the mainstream, his work in ocean conservation has been recognized widely in the marine community. In 2000 and 2010 he earned the NOAA Environmental Hero Award “for using art and humor to conserve and protect our marine heritage.” He speaks all over the world about the importance of protecting our oceans to audiences young and old. He was even invited to go aboard the deep ocean research submersible Alvin. Dropping two miles down, he was able to witness an environment that is under explored and then share what he saw with readers through his comics.
Toomey is still working while out cruising the Caribbean and Europe with his family. His office is aboard the catamaran instead of at their house. It sounds ideal to many wanna-be cruisers, but there are always tradeoffs. “I used to work in tranquility, and now that’s impossible to achieve. The trip itself hasn’t made it much into my work as a cartoonist yet. There’s not a lot about this life experience that a general audience can relate to,” Jim says from France. “One piece of advice for would-be cruisers: don’t try to take work with you. Work, even for a cartoonist drawing a strip about the ocean, is a real drag on a family cruise.”
Jim’s work and play takes him all over the world, but his heart is here on the Chesapeake. He even had Sherman the Shark and friends make some trips to the Potomac River and the Bay. “Yes, I took Sherman and his friends to the Chesapeake Bay a couple of years ago. They met a blue crab and a snakehead fish. I’ll probably bring them back at some point. Sooner or later, we’ll all be back in the Bay.” ~Cindy Wallach
Jim Toomey will speak on October 17, 2017, from 7 to 8 p.m. at SERC. The event is free and open to the public. Find details here.