Scientist Dale Stokes from Scripps Institution of Oceanography swims out from Aquarius, an underwater lab that is scheduled to close. (D.J. ROLLER/LIQUID PICTURES 3D)

Why would a cartoon shark want to save an underwater lab?

Because Jim Toomey, the man behind the syndicated cartoon strip “Sherman’s Lagoon,” wants ocean exploration to be taken seriously. (Turn to Page C7 to see today’s “Sherman’s Lagoon.”)

The Aquarius Reef Base, the world’s only underwater marine lab, is set to close because the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is trying to save money. The 81-ton yellow tube — which allows researchers to dive up to 12 hours a day — lets scientists study everything from how sponges change the ocean’s chemistry to the way water flows over a reef.

Toomey, along with many marine biologists, want the Aquarius’s research to continue. So he has launched a series of comic strips running this month in which the main character, Sherman, travels to the lab — it’s located off the coast of Key Largo, Florida — interviews National Geographic explorer-in-residence Sylvia Earle about its mission and uses a social media campaign in an effort to convince government officials to keep it running.

“It frustrates me the way we seem to be willing to throw billions of dollars at exploring the moon and these far-off places,” Toomey said in an interview. “For a tenth of the percentage of what we spent to put [the rover] Curiosity on Mars, we could explore the ocean with Aquarius.”


Running Aquarius, which has hosted 117 missions since 1993, costs between $1 million and $4 million a year. NOAA has proposed eliminating its entire undersea research program, which includes Aquarius as well as several other projects, starting October 1.

Dan Basta, who directs NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, said he hopes the government will fund the station for another year, which would give the newly created Aquarius Foundation time to raise private donations to support it.

“Aquarius feeds the imagination of innovation,” Basta said, adding that it can inspire kids to pursue careers in science. “It is key in maintaining our competitive advantage in building the world’s future scientists.”

In the “Sherman’s Lagoon” story line, which began September 8 and runs through Saturday, Sherman and his friend, a grouper, talk to Earle about why ocean exploration deserves taxpayer dollars.

“The Mars program gets all the headlines, but the ocean program has more potential to benefit mankind,” Earle explains.

“Because we can eat fish and we can’t eat Martians?” Sherman asks.

“I don’t recommend eating either,” Earle replies.

And would Toomey, an experienced diver and sailor, ever be willing to visit Aquarius himself, if it stays in operation?

“If they put a schoolteacher on the space shuttle, I guess they can put a cartoonist in Aquarius,” he said. “I don’t know how useful I’ll be. I guess I could draw caricatures of people.”

— Juliet Eilperin