JUST HOW FAR are some artists willing to sink to practice their craft?
In the case of Jim Toomey, creator of the popular comic strip “Sherman’s Lagoon,” the answer is “two miles” – and in a craft that can plunge his career path clear down to the ocean floor.
Fortunately, as a cartoonist who specializes in marine life, taking a dive to expand his firsthand knowledge is something he’s entirely comfortable with. So Toomey, in recent days, has relished being chosen as an “artist-in-residence” to climb into Alvin, a Navy deep-ocean submersible vehicle, or DSV. Mission: See a world that relatively few artists this side of James Cameron get to experience.
“Being chosen to dive aboard Alvin is almost like being chosen to go to outer space,” Toomey tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “It’s an opportunity to visit a place very few people have been to: the bottom of the ocean, two miles down. It’s pitch-black, freezing cold, the water pressure is enormous, and you are utterly dependent on technology, preparation and a well-trained team to get out of there alive.”
Come midday Tuesday, from those inky-black depths, Toomey’s voice will be piped in live. The “Lagoon” cartoonist is scheduled to take Alvin down to the seafloor and, sometime between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. East Coast time, talk to his children. The catch is, they will be in school; Toomey’s kids go to West Annapolis Elementary School. So the conversation will be relayed from ocean depth to land line, straight to a certain science class in Annapolis, Md.
Twenty-three scientists and a cartoonist are on the voyage aboard the NOAA research vessel Atlantis, which took off from Gulfport, Miss., last Friday, set for a 10-day expedition in the Gulf of Mexico. “I was invited to participate by the Duke University Marine Lab, of which I am an alum, by director, Cindy Van Dover,” Toomey writes on his site.
“Only three people are able to go down on the sub at a time, so it’s a very coveted opportunity,” writes Toomey of Alvin, which, he notes, “has a storied history” that includes recovering Cold War-era Soviet submarines and nuclear weapons, and has been used by Bob Ballard of TV’s “National Geographic Explorer,” who is among the first to take his cameras to the wreckage of the Titanic.
Toomey tells Comic Riffs that the teams are diving the Florida Escarpment, about 150 miles west of Tampa, Fla.
“It’s ironic that we know so much about the moon, and yet, so little about the deep ocean,” says Toomey, who notes that the voyage is concurrent with World Oceans Day yesterday. “Contrary to the popular image, the bottom of the ocean two miles deep is actually teeming with life: tube worms, clams, all kinds of fish, crabs and coral.”
All this month, Toomey’s voyage is inspiring his comic strip.
“I am currently taking my [‘Sherman’s Lagoon’] characters to the depths of the Gulf of Mexico … , “ Toomey tells us via e-mail, “to introduce readers to some of these incredible animals that live in this alien world.”