Funeral services were pending Tuesday for Stephen Hillenburg, whose lifelong love of the ocean led him first to become a marine-biology teacher in Orange County and later to create the hit underwater animated series “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

Hillenburg, who announced last year he had been diagnosed with ALS, died Monday at age 57, according to Nickelodeon.

Hillenburg “was a beloved friend and long-time creative partner to everyone at Nickelodeon, and our hearts go out to his entire family,” according to a statement from the network. “Steve imbued `SpongeBob SquarePants’ with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere. His utterly original characters and the world of Bikini Bottom will long stand as a reminder of the value of optimism, friendship and the limitless power of imagination.”

Born in Oklahoma but raised in Anaheim, Hillenburg graduated from Humboldt State University in 1984 and began teaching marine biology at the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point. He was known for incorporating his artistic skills by creating animated characters to help teach his students about ocean creatures.

He decided to leave teaching and pursue a career in the arts, attending the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. He began working with Nickelodeon on the series “Rocko’s Modern Life,” then revamped the characters he created during his teaching career to develop “SpongeBob SquarePants.” The show premiered in 1999 and has sparked two feature-length films.

He is survived by his wife Karen and son Clay, along with his mother and brother.

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