As It Happens

Images of SpongeBob Squarepants and Patrick doppelgangers captivate fans

While observing a recent expedition in the Atlantic Ocean, Christopher Mah noticed a scene straight out of the popular cartoon SpongeBob Squarepants: a bright yellow sea sponge, sitting next to a starfish much like Patrick.

Researcher Christopher Mah says the sea star may have been attempting to 'devour' the sponge

A yellow Hertwigia sea sponge and pink Chondraster starfish are seen on the bed of the Retriever seamount in the North Atlantic Ocean, captured by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration underwater camera. (NOAA Ocean Exploration)

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While observing a recent expedition in the Atlantic Ocean, Christopher Mah noticed a scene straight out of the popular cartoon SpongeBob Squarepants: a bright yellow sea sponge, sitting next to a starfish that looked a lot like the main character's best friend Patrick.

But Mah, a research associate at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., says a far more sinister scenario may have been playing out in front of his eyes.

"Most likely what we saw there was the prelude to one of those animals about to devour the other one," he told As It Happens guest host Katie Simpson.

Sea stars, Mah explained, "are predators of just about everything," and the pinkish Chondraster sea star sitting next to the Hertwigia sea sponge in the image was probably no exception.

The image was captured by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) underwater camera, aboard the Okeanos Explorer expedition ship. It was exploring the Retriever seamount, an underwater mountain located in the North Atlantic Ocean.

As Mah explains, the region is incredible cold and dark — so nothing like the pineapple in the shallow sea where the popular Nickelodeon cartoon was set.

Nonetheless, when he saw the sea creatures on the camera's livestream, he immediately knew others would make the same connection he did.

"The colours were the things that tipped me off when I saw them and I just thought, hey, this will be worth a couple of tweets," he said.

He was right, of course: his tweet has attracted thousands of retweets and more than 12,000 likes. Some fans also edited the image to add the characters' smiles and other signature features.

SpongeBob Squarepants debuted in 1999 on Nickelodeon, and was created by marine science educator and animator Stephen Hillenburg. It grew into a monster franchise including 268 television episodes, multiple movies and a Broadway musical adaptation.

Mah says he was blown away by the widely positive response from SpongeBob fans and others online. He thinks it may have been a small bright point for people to share as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on.

"I was really just trying to get a few more people to look at these animals. But it really does seem like it seems to have grasped the attention of people, who really wanted to see something hopeful in nature. And I think nature has always provided us with something like that," he said.

And while the sponge and sea star aren't busily trying to get a Krabby Patty burger just right, that's no reason to dismiss just how amazing nature is, Mah said.

The mere fact that the sponge was such a bright yellow colour is unusual, he explained. Most observed at such depths are white. Another fact that may surprise you: they're effectively living creatures made out of small glass fibres.

"That seems to be lost when you see something like, you know, the rectangular yellow sink sponge that SpongeBob is supposed to represent," he said.

Mah doesn't begrudge a show like SpongeBob for its obvious lack of scientific accuracy, however. It's an entertainment program mostly for kids, not a science documentary.

Patrick and SpongeBob take part in the Worldwide Day of Play on July 26, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Nickelodeon)

He saw the enthusiasm the show's fans brought to the photo as a potential moment for educational outreach.

Mah says he's looking forward to the upcoming Suicide Squad movie from DC Comics, because it will also feature one of the most ridiculous representation of sea-life in pop culture.

"Starro is ... a 40-foot-tall starfish monster. I love that thing," he said.

"It's not a particularly good poster child for sea star biology, but you know, that's fine. It makes the day go a little faster."


Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview with Christopher Mah produced by Sarah Jackson.

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