The Dolphins and Whales of Bikini Bottom

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The main cast of SpongeBob SquarePants

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.

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Stephen Hillenburg

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 poolsAfter 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.

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Early design of Mr. Krabs and Pearl © Stephen Hillenburg

The most prominent cetacean in SpongeBob‘s cast is the one whose origin remains one of the show’s biggest mysteries. Pearl is the headstrong daughter of Mr. Krabs, the greedy crustacean who owns the Krusty Krab. Pearl’s long, rectangular head identifies her as a sperm whale, in stark contrast to her crab father. Fans have long pondered how two sea creatures of such different species could ever be related. A trivia book from the show’s early days said that Pearl “takes after her mother”, implying that Mr. Krabs married a sperm whale and somehow reproduced with her, but Hillenburg has adamantly refused to let the show itself address this question in an episode. He prefers for Pearl’s origins to remain a mystery, even when his own writers have proposed episode outlines exploring her backstory. The absence of Pearl’s mother was apparently inspired by the phrase “mother of pearl”, which Mr. Krabs exclaims in moments of great distress.

SpongeBob_SquarePants_Pearl_Krabs_-_Growth_SpoutPearl’s species is far from incidental to her character. Hillenburg knew early on that he wanted to include a whale character in SpongeBob, inspired by his work overseeing whale watching excursions at the Oceans Institute. The people of Bikini Bottom do not generally discern much between different species, but Pearl’s unique attributes as a whale frequently mark her out as different from her peers. Her size compared to the other characters is noticeable — her tantrums cause buildings to shake and rooms to flood, and her giant brain makes her abnormally good at math. Voice actress Lori Alan incorporates Pearl’s size into her portrayal, the low tones of Pearl’s deep voice referencing whale song while keeping her personality bubbly and childlike. As Mr. Krabs’s spoiled but endearing daughter, she personifies many stereotypes about teenage girls while having a drastically different body type than the one typically associated on television with a popular girl interested in shopping and cheerleading who dreams of being a famous singer. In this way, Pearl plays to common teenage tropes while simultaneously subverting them.

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Jai’len Christine Li Josey in SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical

Hillenburg once revealed that the biggest change between SpongeBob’s early concepts and the actual show was how much less Pearl featured in the final product compared to Mr. Krabs. They were originally planned to have equal screentime, but Mr. Krabs has become a much more prominent member of the cast than his daughter. Nevertheless, Pearl remains a fan favourite. She has seen a recent resurgence in popularity thanks to Jai’len Christine Li Josey’s portrayal of her in SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical in 2017. Josey’s tall afro evokes Pearl’s whale head, and the teenager’s powerful vocals make her musical performances some of the most memorable of the production. The musical explores her sometimes troubled relationship with her father in more detail, such as in the song “Daddy Knows Best” which pits her in an emotional duet with Carlos Lopez as Mr. Krabs:

I was first introduced to the musical’s version of the character by fanartists, some of whose work you can see below. The range of artistic inspiration this new version of the character has caused shows the enduring appeal of this cetacean character in the SpongeBob cast.

While Pearl is without a doubt the most important whale character in SpongeBob, there are other whales who appear in minor roles from the very beginning of the series. The season one episode “Ripped Pants” sees the debut of two minor recurring cetacean characters, Frank the humpback whale and Don the orca. Don is a bodybuilder usually seen in the company of Larry the lobster, while Frank was left buried in the sand when his friends forgot about him, before he redeems himself by playing drums in SpongeBob’s band. Below is a sampling of some of the background roles that have been filled by whales and orcas throughout the show’s run.

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Unlike whales, dolphins appear very infrequently in SpongeBob, even as background characters. There are no dolphin characters during the show’s first three seasons, a period commonly regarded as the show’s golden age, but these early episodes do weave dolphins into the show’s distinctive soundscape. Dolphins first appear in the season one episode “Jellyfish Jam”. After a friendly jellyfish follows SpongeBob home, only to invite all of its friends to throw a wild party in SpongeBob’s house which is only stopped by SpongeBob’s destruction of the sound system, SpongeBob and his pet snail Gary cower in fear as the enraged jellyfish swarm around them. However, Gary starts knocking his eyes together in a rhythm that calms the jellyfish and gets them dancing. As SpongeBob and Gary lead the jellyfish back to their home of Jellyfish Fields, other sea creatures join in the music as SpongeBob conducts (start video at 9:00):

The splicing of wildlife footage with animated underwater antics is characteristic of the show’s distinctive surrealist style. Employing dolphins in this manner calls upon the popular image today of dolphins as playful, musical creatures, happy to partake in the performance. SpongeBob has won numerous awards for its music and sound mixing, including a Golden Reel for Best Sound Editing (Music) in Television Animation in 2000, the year after this episode aired. The dolphin chirp as a musical element reappears later in the show, such as in the song “Bubble Beat Box” in the season three episode “The Sponge Who Could Fly”:

Sailor_MouthMusic isn’t the only way dolphin vocalizations are incorporated into SpongeBob’s soundscape. Their calls occasionally crop up as a miscellaneous sound effect, such as the ringtone for the Aquaphone belonging to Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy. Perhaps the most famous use of dolphins in the show, however, is as a censor. In the season two episode “Sailor Mouth”, the ever-innocent SpongeBob reads out a swear word used to describe Mr. Krabs on a dumpster behind the Krusty Krab. Rather than the simple “beep” that would normally cover up a swear word on American television, a sound clip of dolphins chirping is played every time SpongeBob repeats the word. Although a passing garbage collector is disgusted by SpongeBob’s language, Patrick approves of the new addition to SpongeBob’s vocabulary as a “sentence enhancer” and encourages him to drop it into conversation in order to appear more sophisticated. As usual, Patrick’s understanding of social convention is flawed, landing SpongeBob into trouble with Mr. Krabs when customers leave the restaurant in favour of a more “family friendly” establishment after SpongeBob makes liberal use of the word over the restaurant’s loudspeaker.

Mr. Krabs: Huh? [Squidward whispers it again; Mr. Krabs gasps] SpongeBob and friend! Front and center! Why, I oughta make the two of you paint the Krusty Krab for using such language!

SpongeBob: But, Mr. Krabs, we were only using our sentence enhancers.

Patrick: Yeah, it’s fancy talk.

Mr. Krabs: There ain’t nothing fancy about that word!

SpongeBob: You mean [dolphin chirp]?

Mr. Krabs: Yes, that one! [SpongeBob and Patrick stand up] Now quit saying that! [SpongeBob and Patrick frown] It’s a bad word!

SpongeBob and Patrick: Bad word?! [both start wiping their tongues]

Mr. Krabs: Yes sirree, that’s bad word number 11. In fact, there are 13 bad words you should never use.

Squidward: Don’t you mean there are only 7?

Mr. Krabs: Not if you’re a sailor. [laughs]

SpongeBob: Wow, 13.

Patrick: That’s a lot of [dolphin chirp] bad words.

The lexical employment of the dolphin chirp throughout the episode makes it a clear stand in for the f-word. The sound effect was actually edited out of a later part of the episode where SpongeBob is losing to Patrick at a game of Eels and Escalators, when they were going to shout at each other “Go [dolphin chirp] yourself!” and “[Dolphin chirp] you too!” because it was thought that in that context, it would be so obviously the f-word that they wouldn’t be able to get away with it on a children’s show. As a swear word, the sound effect reappears in the season five episode “Slimy Dancing” when Squidward swears while getting a cramp, and in the film The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water.

In an interesting twist, however, the Encyclopedia SpongeBobia reveals that this most famous dolphin sound is not actually a dolphin at all! Available from the Hollywood Edge sound effects library, the sound clip is actually a sped-up, backwards version of a kookaburra’s laugh. SpongeBob was not the first to use it as a dolphin sound, though – that precedent had been established in 1963’s Flipper. While the reason for using this heavily modified kookaburra sound in place of real dolphins is unknown, it’s possible that in 1963 the equipment for recording dolphins was not sophisticated enough to create the clear-cut sound desired. Since then, the sound has become so iconic as to frequently replace actual dolphin sounds in many different media. You can compare the clip used in SpongeBob, the laugh of a kookaburra, and the real sound of dolphins chirping here:

Fico-sbspetc_255_0001Perhaps surprisingly, no animated dolphin character appears until season eight of the show’s run, deep into what many fans consider the show’s sharp decline in quality after the departure of Stephen Hillenburg as showrunner. When dolphins do start to appear, however, aspects of New Age beliefs about the creatures make it into their characterizations. The only dolphin to appear as a denizen of Bikini Bottom is an ancient warrior in the otherwise unremarkable season eight episode Sponge-Cano! When a volcanic eruption threatens to engulf Bikini Bottom, this dolphin flies into a frantic town meeting.

Mayor: We’re doomed!

[a shadowy figure appears in the doorway, laughing. The figure reveals to be a humanized dolphin holding a staff.]

Dolphin Warrior: [laughs] You fools!

[The crowd of Bikini Bottom citizens looks at the dolphin flying on his staff. He lands on behind the mayor’s desk.]

Mayor: Who are you?

Dolphin Warrior: [laughing] I am an ancient warrior from long ago. The last of my kind who ruled over the ocean from before the dawn of time. But, alas, my people were wiped out by the same volcano that plagues you now.

Harold: Then how did you survive?

Dolphin Warrior: [laughs] I survived, because I was the only one who knew how to stop it!

Harold: Well, don’t keep us in suspense. How did you stop it?

Dolphin Warrior: You must make… a sacrifice!

Dolphin_WarriorThe idea of dolphins as ancient overlords, overseeing from a distance all that happens and intervening occasionally to help others, is one that runs deep through New Age belief systems. The Dolphin Warrior’s arrogant and inelegant way of speaking, as voiced by long-time SpongeBob voice actor Dee Bradley Baker, offers a subtle parody of the New Age belief that dolphins are majestic, all-knowing beings who dispense their sage advice to other, less enlightened species. In the case of SpongeBob’s dolphin warrior, this advice is misunderstood, with the dolphin lamenting that nobody ever listens to him after the people of Bikini Bottom nearly sacrifice Squidward to the volcano when they misinterpret the ancient warrior’s prophetic power.

A much more pronounced parody of New Age dolphin beliefs comes in the character of Bubbles, a stop-motion animated dolphin who features in the film The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. The time-travelling, space-faring dolphin is a satirical send-up of New Age dolphin beliefs in the vein of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When Plankton and SpongeBob are trying to travel back in time, they accidentally end up in the future and encounter an imposing dolphin who identifies himself as “the one who watches”.

In the above clip, SpongeBob and Plankton take over Bubbles’s job of watching the universe while he uses the bathroom, but under their clumsy care Jupiter and Saturn undergo a catastrophic collision. Bubbles pursues them with lasers shooting from his blowhole, but later he helps SpongeBob and his friends – their stunt got him kicked out of his job of 10,000 years, but he said it was a “dead end” job he’d been looking for a way out of for a long time! After saving most of the main cast, Bubbles makes one final appearance in the movie shortly before the credits roll, interrupting the beloved theme song only to be challenged to a rap battle (written by the creators behind “Epic Rap Battles of History”) by the disgruntled seagulls who had been singing along:

Overall, whales have a much stronger presence in SpongeBob‘s cast than dolphins do. Whales have been part of the original vision for the characters since the beginning, while dolphins featured more strongly in the show’s music and sound mixing during its earlier years. As the series has become the fourth longest running American animated show in history and undergone several changes of writers, the show’s marine life has expanded to include dolphin characters. It is a little surprising that dolphins are not regular inhabitants of Bikini Bottom, but in the early seasons of the show, the surrealist artistic details such as sound mixing and music were almost as important as the characters themselves in establishing the show’s unique tone. From the beginning, then, cetaceans of all stripes have played an integral role in making SpongeBob SquarePants the beloved animated classic it is today.

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