Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? If you’ve had kids, or been a kid, in the past 20 years, you know the answer is Spongebob Squarepants, the star of the long-running and beloved Nickelodeon cartoon of the same name.
The cartoon is set in the fun, colorful undersea world of Bikini Bottom, populated by sea creatures like Spongebob’s neighbors Patrick (a starfish) Squidward (an octopus) and Sandy (a squirrel in a diving suit.)
While the show was inspired by creator Stephen Hillenburg’s background in marine biology, it obviously took some scientific liberties — real sea sponges don’t look like Spongebob, for instance (nor do they usually work as fast food fry cooks.)
But it turns out Spongebob may have been more scientifically accurate than we gave it credit for. Recently, one researcher made a discovery that bears a striking resemblance to two undersea BFFs.
According to NPR, Christopher Mah, a marine biologist and research associate who collaborates with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was watching a live feed from a submersible launched from the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer.
But during this routine research work, he discovered an unexpectedly funny sight on the ocean floor.
He saw a pink starfish laying right next to a yellow sea sponge — an uncanny resemblance to Spongebob and his best friend Patrick Star.
“When we saw them, the colors matched perfectly,” Mah told Inside Edition. “So I was like, wow, that’s like real life Patrick. And then SpongeBob.”
While he wrote that he “normally avoids these [references]” the resemblance to the characters was just too spot-on to ignore, and shared the now-viral photo on Twitter.
“They’re just a dead ringer for the cartoon characters,” he told NPR.
The research was part of the NOAA’s North Atlantic Stepping Stones expedition, a project to collect information about unknown deep-water areas. The photo was taken 200 miles off the Atlantic coast.
Little did they know the expedition would lead them to the real-life Bikini Bottom. No word on if they’ve found the Krusty Krab yet.
The photo has gone viral all over the internet, delighting the many generations of kids who grew up watching Spongebob.
However, there’s a dark side to this story. While Spongebob and Patrick are loyal best friends, their real-life counterparts are… less so.
“In all likelihood, the reason that starfish is right next to that sponge is because that sponge is just about to be devoured, at least in part,” Mah told NPR. “The reality is a little crueler than perhaps a cartoon would suggest.”
He’s not sure if the pictured starfish actually ate the sea sponge, as the sponge’s yellow color is actually from a chemical defense, but yes, starfish eat sea sponge, as Mah shared on Twitter:
But that darker reality hasn’t stopped people from embracing the connection to the whimsical cartoon. As the photo went viral online, even the official Spongebob Instagram account was getting in on the fun.
Meanwhile, Mah and his colleagues hope that the viral photo helps get fans interested in the wonders of undersea life.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, my God, this is perfect. This is great. I can’t believe this is true,’” Mah told NPR. “So if we can bring positivity and we can make people happy by showing them nature — well, that’s what nature has always done for us before.”
“Anything that draws attention to the deep sea and how unexplored it is and all the new things that we’re learning each time we go out and explore, I think is a huge benefit to the community,” Kasey Cantwell, Chief of Operations of NOAA Expeditions and Exploration Division, told Inside Edition.
It’s a bit of a full-circle moment: Spongebob‘s creator, the late Stephen Hillenburg, was originally a marine biology instructor before going into cartooning. Two years after his death from ALS, his creation is still inspiring curiosity about our undersea friends.
Wow, what an uncanny resemblance. Best of luck to these marine biologists working hard to explore the deep — hopefully they find a Squidward next!