Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS! So begins the theme song for the legendary SpongeBob SquarePants, an animated show running on Nickelodeon since 1999. The show’s eponymous sponge does indeed live in a pineapple under the sea, along with other denizens of the deep such as a squid, a starfish, a crab, and even a squirrel with an air helmet. But what sorts of marine mammals inhabit the world of Bikini Bottom? In today’s entry, we’ll be exploring the different ways cetaceans have cropped up throughout the show’s run.
The diversity of marine life portrayed in the show stems from the interests of the show’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg. Hillenburg brought to his animation career a lifelong passion for marine life. He’d actually majored in marine biology and minored in art at Humboldt State University before going on to study animation at CalArts. The first seeds for SpongeBob were planted when he worked at the Oceans Institute (then known as the Orange County Marine Institute) in Dana Point, California. He produced a comic called The Intertidal Zone to educate children at the Institute about life in tide pools. After working on Rocko’s Modern Life, a ’90s Nickelodeon cartoon known for its adult humour and social commentary, Hillenburg drew on ideas from The Intertidal Zone to develop SpongeBob SquarePants. The show soon became the network’s most successful programme, appealing to children and adults alike. It’s experienced its fair share of controversies, too, surrounding its subtly subversive portrayal of gender roles and economic exploitation of the working class. Above all, though, the show is beloved for its offbeat humour and surrealist style. (The show certainly had a formative influence on the sense of humour my sister and I share!) Hillenburg’s deep love of marine biology pervades every detail of Bikini Bottom. The opening of the very first episode, a languid narration in a thick French accent, is a homage to 20th century scientist Jacques Cousteau who, among his many contributions to marine conservation, raised the public profile of whale and dolphin intelligence and singing. While fish are the focus in SpongeBob, cetaceans have their own important role to play in what makes the show so special.