The Intertidal Zone (found Stephen Hillenburg educational comic book; 1989)

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Colored version of the front cover of The Intertidal Zone.

Status: Found

Date found: 24 Apr 2024

Found by: Chris McCord

In 1989, Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of the long-lasting Nickelodeon cartoon series SpongeBob SquarePants, worked at the Orange County Marine Institute as a marine biology teacher. To educate and inspire his pupils regarding the life and characteristics of tide pool animals, Hillenburg established an educational comic book titled The Intertidal Zone. Alas, the comic, which greatly influenced the creation of SpongeBob SquarePants 15 years later, received no interest from publishers. Outside of a few glimpses in SpongeBob documentaries and comics, The Intertidal Zone remained mostly inaccessible for public viewing until April 2024.


Before he delved into the American animation industry, Stephen Hillenburg earned a Marine Resource Planning and Interpretation bachelor's degree at Humboldt State University.[1][2][3] He opted to hedge his bets, having also graduated with a minor in art.[2] Though he later recognised his growing aspirations for art, as well as acclaim from Humboldt art professors who assessed his work,[4] Hillenburg decided that pursuing a marine biology career was a safer path initially.[2] Not long after graduating from Humboldt, Hillenburg received employment at the Orange County Marine Institute as a marine biology teacher.[4][3] As he explained in a 2012 interview with Big Pop Fun, this career was ideal for him as it combined his marine knowledge and passion with his desire to educate children.[4] For three years, in what he considered "a great experience",[3] Hillenburg taught pupils nautical history, whale-watching, and, most notably of all, tide pool ecology.[5][4] During his time at the Marine Institute, Hillenburg gladly provided artwork to enhance the material provided at its educational department.[6][4]

Recognising Hillenburg's talent, the Institute's Chief Marine Biologist, Harry Helling, encouraged him to produce a comic book surrounding the life of tide pool animals located on the coast of Southern California.[7][8][9][4] At first, Hillenburg was surprisingly reluctant to do this. As he discussed in his Big Pop Fun and SpongeBob Comics No. 1 interviews, Hillenburg originally thought a career in illustrating fish would be incredibly dull.[7][4] But spurred on by this request, Hillenburg delivered a 15-page comic book that he titled The Intertidal Zone, which refers to coastlines that are constantly affected by the changing tide.[10][11][12] During a low tide, the land is almost barren except for tide pools that capture a small quantity of seawater.[12] Dwelling within these tide pools are marine creatures like sponges and sea stars.[12][11] These provide crucial lifelines within one of Earth's most challenging ecosystems.[11] The comic also represented Hillenburg's childhood fascination with tide pool life, something that was reciprocated by many of his students.[13][5]

The Intertidal Zone served its purpose of educating and entertaining children about tide pool life.[14][15] According to Hillenburg, The Intertidal Zone was his first full-length comic, with Robert Crumb and Paul Driessen greatly inspiring its art style.[7] Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, one of the comic's main characters, Bob the Sponge, had become the very first iteration of SpongeBob.[6][7][15][2] Also of interest is that the comic's front cover features a pet snail, which clearly inspired the creation of Gary over a decade later.[10] Motivated by the comic's initial positive reception, Hillenburg pitched The Intertidal Zone to several publishers in 1989,[15] all to no avail.[3][2][4] As he explained in a 2014 interview with Princess Grace Foundation-USA, none of the publishers felt the concept would be profitable.[3] Undeterred, Hillenburg left the Marine Institute in favour of studying a master's in Experimental Animation at the California Institute of Arts.[1][2] Though he lacked animation experience, he earned a place upon impressing former Disney animator and the program's director Jules Engel, by showcasing The Intertidal Zone and his artwork to him.[4][8]

Upon his graduation in 1992, Hillenburg was subsequently hired by Nickelodeon.[1][2] He notably worked on cartoons like Rocko's Modern Life and The Rugrats.[2] During Hillenburg's assignment at Rocko's Modern Life, writer Martin Olson read a copy of The Intertidal Zone and promptly told Hillenburg "This should be your own show".[16][4] Armed with this premise, Hillenburg analysed The Intertidal Zone and decided that his new show would drop the main character Rocky the Shrimp in favour of reinvigorating Bob the Sponge.[2][6] In terms of appearance, Bob the Sponge was based on an actual sea sponge.[2][10] However, his new creation would instead take inspiration from a kitchen sponge.[2][15] This formed part of the character's "innocent" and "oddball" nature.[1][6][16] He originally dubbed the character "SpongeBoy", but later changed it to SpongeBob.[16][15][1] Though some rumours suggest SpongeBoy was the trademark of a mop company, this was debunked by YouTuber Kid Leaves Stoop.[17]

Greenlit by Nickelodeon,[1] SpongeBob SquarePants aired its first episode on 1st May 1999.[18] It swiftly became among Nickelodeon's biggest critical and commercial successes, reportedly being worth $13 billion by 2013.[19] It also enabled Hillenburg to combine his two biggest passions into one long-lasting franchise.[4] He ultimately left the show's production crew in 2004 but made a full-time return in January 2015.[20] He continued his work on the show until he passed away on 26th November 2018 from motor neurone disease, aged 57.[21][2]

The Intertidal Zone

The Intertidal Zone features two main anthropomorphic characters: Rocky the Shrimp and Bob the Sponge. Rocky is an enthusiastic yet vain and obnoxious television host who explores the intertidal zone and aims to interview its residents. Bob is his sunglasses-wearing co-host who serves as the show's announcer. The comic is split into three separate sections: the first shows Rocky and other cinemagoers at the Intertidal Theater watching a film titled "The Mysterious Tides". Rocky uses it to explain how the Moon is responsible for changes in tide levels, with its pull causing the Earth's oceans to bulge. Upon doing so, shorelines not far from the bulge's epicentre experience a high tide, whereas those further away from it witness a low tide.[22] "The Mysterious Tides" is praised for its story and special effects, though Bob is forced to coax Rocky out of his sudden and inexplicable snooze.[10]

Part 2 features Rocky interviewing various tide pool animals. As Bob notes to the viewers, Rocky has continually attempted to conduct the "perfect interview", which inevitably ends in disaster. This is illustrated during Bob's first interview, with Mr. Barnacle. Neither he nor an increasingly irritated Barnacle can understand each other as barnacles notably live inverted.[23] Bob's attempt to replicate Barnacle's mannerisms ends with him suffering nasty head trauma, with Barnacle remarking "They'll do anything to sell something these days." Following this, Rocky briefly encounters a set of limpets heading away from an overcrowded tide pool. He sets out to interview the tide pool dwellers, only to be surprised by a massive group of mussels who angrily demand he leave the cramped space. Rocky's retort that he is a "mega-star" causes the mussels to freak out, mistakenly believing he was calling himself a sea star, the natural predator of mussels during high tides.[24] Rocky further upsets the mussels by debating them on the merits of being a mobile creature as opposed to attaching oneself on a rock or another structure.[25] They gain the last laugh, however, when a sudden wave allows them to dine on plankton while Rocky is caught unawares.[10][25]

Rocky is forced to reject a crab's lunch offer, as he realises that he is late for his interview with a sea anemone. Though Rocky is aware that sea anemones lure shrimp and other prey via their alluring appearances,[26] he is still nevertheless seduced by one and comes very close to being eaten. Following this near-career-ending fiasco, the shrimp is delighted to encounter a sea cucumber. Despite the sea cucumber's pleas, Rocky fails to realise that his loud voice and visual depiction of its predators will cause the sea cucumber to activate its defence mechanism: ejecting its intestines at the threat.[27] After this, Bob presents a series of interesting facts surrounding tide pool life, such as how a crab can forcibly remove its claws to grow new ones to protect itself,[28] or how sea anemones reproduce asexually by splitting themselves in half.[26] Bob concludes the segment by presenting the feeding habits of an octopus, whose varied diet can consist of crustaceans, including, rather worryingly for Rocky, shrimps.[29] However, it leaves fish leftovers, which Rocky cannot resist. Bob, seemingly caring little about his co-host's current feeding frenzy, thanks the viewers for tuning into The Intertidal Zone.[10]


While some of Hillenburg's other pre-SpongeBob projects had previously been made publicly available, including The Green Beret and Wormholes,[30] his first full-length comic remained mostly inaccessible to the public for decades.[31] Some pages of The Intertidal Zone were occasionally featured in SpongeBob-related media, including in the documentaries The Origin of SpongeBob SquarePants and Square Roots: The Story of SpongeBob SquarePants,[8][6] as well as the aforementioned SpongeBob Comics No. 1.[7] However, these snippets only represented a proportion of the full comic, sparking occasional discussions on the Lost Media Wiki Forums and r/spongebob on the extent of The Intertidal Zone's availability.[32] But outside of Lost Media Wiki Forum user Ally discovering the snippets in SpongeBob Comics No. 1, very little else was uncovered and an official hunt was never organised.[33]

But on 21st April 2024, artist Chris McCord revealed on Twitter that he had been gifted a copy of The Intertidal Zone for his birthday.[34] McCord identified that the full comic was lost media and planned to upload it to the Internet Archive.[35] Three days following the original post, McCord announced The Intertidal Zone could now be viewed on the Internet Archive in its entirety.[36][10]



Meet the Creator: Stephen Hillenburg where Hillenburg presided over a copy of The Intertidal Zone.

The Origin of SpongeBob SquarePants where Hillenburg discussed his work on The Intertidal Zone and provided a few pages from it (1:16-2:48).

Square Roots: The Story of SpongeBob SquarePants where Hillenburg briefly discussed The Intertidal Zone and provided a few pages from it (3:36-4:07).

See Also

SpongeBob SquarePants Media

Other Hillenburg Media

External Links


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Who's Who in Animated Cartoons: An International Guide to Film & Television's Award-winning and Legendary Animators detailing the life and career of Hillenburg and his work at the Orange County Marine Institute (p.g. 140-141). Retrieved 29th May '24
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 Independent obituary for Hillenburg. Retrieved 29th May '24
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Archived Princess Grace Foundation-USA interview with Hillenburg where he discussed why The Intertidal Zone was left unpublished. Retrieved 29th May '24
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 Big Pop Fun interview with Hillenburg where he discussed his university studies, his marine biology career and The Intertidal Zone (21:40-30:22). Retrieved 29th May '24
  5. 5.0 5.1 Archived SunSentinel where Hillenburg explained his role at the Orange County Marine Institute. Retrieved 29th May '24
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Square Roots: The Story of SpongeBob SquarePants where Hillenburg briefly discussed The Intertidal Zone and provided a few pages from it (3:36-4:07). Retrieved 29th May '24
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 SpongeBob Comics No. 1 where Hillenburg discussed the creation of The Interidal Zone and its inspirations, with some pages included within it (p.g. 29, found on Encylopedia SpongeBobia). Retrieved 29th May '24
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 The Origin of SpongeBob SquarePants where Hillenburg discussed his pre-SpongeBob career, including being encouraged by Helling to create The Intertidal Zone (1:16-2:48). Retrieved 29th May '24
  9. Wyland Facebook post summarising Hillenburg working with Helling on art for the Marine Institute. Retrieved 29th May '24
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 As depicted in The Intertidal Zone. Retrieved 29th May '24
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 National Geographic explaining the intertidal zone and its challenges. Retrieved 29th May '24
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 National Ocean Service explaining the various types of intertidal zones and what creatures may exist in them. Retrieved 29th May '24
  13. Archived Washington Post noting Hillenburg's fascination with tide pool life. Retrieved 29th May '24
  14. The San Diego Union-Tribune noting The Intertidal Zone's purpose. Retrieved 29th May '24
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 Archived Washington Post detailing the transformation from Bob the Sponge to SpongeBob SquarePants. Retrieved 29th May '24
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 The Guardian interview where Hillenburg summarised what inspired him to create SpongeBob Squarepants. Retrieved 29th May '24
  17. Kid Leaves Stoop's video debunking the SpongeBoy mop rumour. Retrieved 29th May '24
  18. The New York Times noting SpongeBob SquarePants aired its first episode in May 1999. Retrieved 29th May '24
  19. Businesswire summarising SpongeBob SquarePants. Retrieved 29th May '24
  20. Cinema Blend reporting on Hillenburg making a full-time return to producing SpongeBob SquarePants from January 2015 onwards. Retrieved 29th May '24
  21. The Guardian reporting on the death of Hillenburg. Retrieved 29th May '24
  22. NASA explaining how the Moon affects the tide levels. Retrieved 29th May '24
  23. National Maritime Historical Society summarising the characteristics of barnacles. Retrieved 29th May '24
  24. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History summarising how starfish eat mussels. Retrieved 29th May '24
  25. 25.0 25.1 Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey summarising fresh mussels (and comparing them to freshwater ones). Retrieved 29th May '24
  26. 26.0 26.1 Blue Planet Aquarium summarising sea anemones. Retrieved 29th May '24
  27. Science Alert summarising the sea cucumber's defence mechanism. Retrieved 29th May '24
  28. Crazy Creatures summarising why crabs remove their claws (1:04-1:31). Retrieved 29th May '24
  29. OctoNation summarising the eating habits of octopuses. Retrieved 29th May '24
  30. Stephen Hillenburg's The Green Beret and Wormholes. Retrieved 29th May '24
  31. Lost Media Wiki Forums discussing The Intertidal Zone. Retrieved 29th May '24
  32. 2020 r/spongebob post requesting the full version of The Intertidal Zone. Retrieved 29th May '24
  33. Lost Media Wiki Forums discussing the SpongeBob Comics No. 1 snippets discovered by Ally and the recovery of the full version of The Intertidal Zone. Retrieved 29th May '24
  34. McCord's X post revealing he possessed a copy of The Intertidal Zone. Retrieved 29th May '24
  35. McCord's X post stating he planned to upload the full comic to the Internet Archive. Retrieved 29th May '24
  36. McCord's X post announcing that The Intertidal Zone was now fully available on the Internet Archive. Retrieved 29th May '24