Meet artist, conservationist, and NOAA friend Jim Toomey, creator of Sherman’s Lagoon

In the 50 years since our founding, NOAA has worked with many individuals who share a passion for environmental issues and a relentless dedication to understanding and conserving our planet. Jim Toomey, creator of the daily comic strip Sherman’s Lagoon, is one of these people. To help us celebrate 50 years of science, service, and stewardship, Toomey is providing special illustrations of his popular characters.

NOAA 50th logo with Sherman the shark and Fillmore the sea turtle.

NOAA 50th logo with Sherman the shark and Fillmore the sea turtle. (Image credit: NOAA)

Syndicated in more than 250 daily newspapers and six languages around the world, Sherman’s Lagoon combines two of Toomey’s lifelong passions: art and the ocean. Though he intended to follow the family tradition of becoming an engineer, a childhood interest in the ocean and all of its creatures stayed with Toomey through his formative years and into adulthood.

Cartoonist Jim Toomey with two of his characters, Sherman the shark and Fillmore the sea turtle.
Cartoonist Jim Toomey with two of his characters, Sherman the shark and Fillmore the sea turtle. (NOAA)

While attempting to pinpoint a moment that solidified that passion, Toomey recalls a childhood flight to the Bahamas, from which he could see the shallow, clear water.I realized that the world below the surface of the water was just as fascinating and full of detail as the world above it,” said Toomey.

As he continued to learn about marine life, he became enamored with one creature in particular: the shark. On a family vacation in Ocean City, Maryland, young Toomey watched as a fisherman caught a sizable shark.I still remember that moment. Touching its skin, looking into its eyes. It clearly made an impression on me,” Toomey said. “From that moment on, I could not read enough about sharks.” In that fateful moment, though he may not have been aware of it at the time, Toomey had found his muse.

After working for several years and continuing to draw as a hobby, Toomey decided to take a chance and pursue art as a full-time career. By 1991, Sherman’s Lagoon had launched in the San Diego Escondido Times-Advocate, and was continuing to gain popularity. By the end of the decade, Toomey had drawn enough strips to publish two collections of his work. To date, he has published 25.

He didn’t stop there. Amidst his success, Toomey longed to further the public understanding of threats to the ocean and marine life. Though the theme of conservation was ever present in his cartoons, another opportunity presented itself — collaboration with NOAA. 

“About 15 years ago I got an email ... inquiring about using a few of my comic strips in some outreach materials,” said Toomey. After flying out to Silver Spring, Maryland to meet with NOAA employees, it became clear to Toomey that they shared the same goal. “I was very impressed with the folks I worked with,” he said. “They were obviously very committed to not only ocean-related issues, but also how to make those issues more palatable and understandable to the public.”  

In the years since, Toomey has worked on projects with NOAA, lending his talents to many departments across the agency, especially the national marine sanctuaries. In fact, Sherman has “visited” each of these underwater treasures. His collaboration has led to the development of a poster for Marine Protected Areas, as well as various illustrations and graphics to promote education and conservation. He has also lent Sherman’s Lagoon artwork to both the Gateway to NOAA exhibit on the NOAA Silver Spring Campus and traveling Treasures of NOAA’s Ark exhibit, currently on display at the NOAA Boulder Lab and soon to be hosted by the National Museum of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C.  

The Silver Sherman award.
The Silver Sherman award. (NOAA)

Additionally, his work has inspired a special award within NOAA: the Silver Sherman. Since 2016, the Silver Sherman has been awarded to individuals who have performed work above the normal requirements, achieved a milestone that contributed significantly toward the attainment of a particular program goal, or demonstrated immense leadership toward process improvement. The pin accompanying the award is a small, silver likeness of Sherman, Toomey’s lead character.

While reflecting on his past, both as an artist and with NOAA, Toomey also looks ahead to the future of the agency. “I firmly believe we are entering an era that will last several decades where scientists, complemented by policymakers, will play the most important role in changing society for the better,” Toomey said. “I think, in the next fifty years, NOAA will continue to play an extremely important role in helping to create a more sustainable society.”