SpongeBob and Friends: Splendor in the Kelp

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David Helvarg is president of the Blue Frontier Campaign, editor of the Ocean and Coastal Conservation Guide (Island Press, 2005) and author of "Blue Frontier -- Saving America's Living Seas" (Sierra Club Books, 2005).

James Dobson of Focus on the Family has tossed a new harpoon in the culture wars, claiming that SpongeBob SquarePants is being used to promote a homosexual agenda. He doesn’t know the half of it.

When it comes to sex outside of marriage, the oceans that cover 71% of our planet are rife with reproductive strategies and behaviors that would make Caligula, or even Bill Clinton, blush.

SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg, who has a background in marine biology, had to be aware that in creating a cartoon sponge he’d be opening himself up to charge of marine-based immorality. Sponges can reproduce asexually, for example. And if Dobson’s followers don’t object to that, I’m sure they’ll be distressed to learn that they also can be hermaphrodites. Single sponges not only produce both sperm and eggs but are broadcast spawners, indiscriminately releasing sperm in such profusion as to turn seawater smoky white.


Life in the sea, in fact, is largely about reproduction, not traditional family values.

Take the blue crab, pound for pound one of the most fearsome creatures on the planet, yet when the female undergoes her molt of puberty, she releases a scent that makes the male’s aggression dissipate like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the presence of Maria Shriver. They’ll then copulate for between 10 and 48 hours before regressing to single-crab combat.

The sex life of the blue crab raises the question, do marine organisms have orgasms? Which leads to related questions such as, do they need to? And how does that make you feel when you order a tuna fish sandwich?

We don’t really know how much fun blue crabs or tuna are having. We do know that many species of fish vocalize, or at least produce sounds from within their bodies, at the moment they “broadcast their gametes.”

And that’s only the beginning. Certain species, like blue-headed wrasses, are transgender. They all start out as females; some then flip a hormonal switch in order to function as males when they spawn together.

Groupers also go through sex changes, but slowly over time. They start out life as females but as they grow older and larger they become males. Unfortunately, with people catching a large percentage of the larger fish, the remaining groupers tend to be female with few opportunities to meet guys and make baby groupers.

Of course, when we’re considering the sex lives of fish, its hard not to notice that the males of some larger fish species, including rays, sharks and sawfish, have what appear to be two penises. Actually, these are modified anal fins called claspers. Their owners have just one penis -- it’s internal, but it empties into these claspers, one of which is inserted into the female. The extra clasper bangs loose on the side of the animal. The scientific explanation? It’s good to have spare parts.


What about our fellow mammals? Because dolphins are intelligent, sociable and have jaw structures that make them appear to be smiling, we like to think of them as peace-loving and playful. The bottlenose dolphin of “Flipper” fame, however, has a sex life less like that of a hippie than that of a Hells Angel.

Male bottlenose dolphins will form alliances of two to four in order to isolate and have sex with a single female they like. They’ll keep other males away while repeatedly copulating with her for several weeks at a time.

The terminally cute sea otter is a marine weasel into rough sex. The male otter’s arms (legs, whatever) are effective for grooming their fine pelts or cracking shells on the rocks they place on their bellies, but they are too short for getting a good grip on a mate. So the male gets firm purchase by biting down on the female’s nose before going for a little splendor in the kelp.

Afterward you can often spot the females hauled up on rocks along the shore, their fur matted and their noses bloody. It’s not hard to imagine that a female with a heavily scarred nose might get a reputation as an easy otter.

Whatever you think about these marine animals as role models for American youth, we owe them, big-time. Their populations have been decimated by hunting, overfishing and ocean pollution. We’re now catching fish faster than they can employ their reproductive strategies, with 75% of the world’s edible wild fish maxed out or in a state of collapse. Even sponges have been over-harvested.

It’s that kind of reckless disregard for life’s unique, sexy and profound diversity that I’d call the real sin against creation.