Breaking the Surface: Orcas as Public Art




Over the last few years I’ve been keeping an eye out for representations of the orca in public spaces. I’ve spotted them in tacky murals, as ‘sponsored’ charity sculptures and, occasionally, as serious public art installations. Of course, the real thing seems to be making some welcome and occasionally spectacular appearances in close local waters. Recently, just five minutes from me, there was a pod frolicking at Jericho beach. More and more amateur videos are being posted of sightings from local ferry decks. And every so often, one or two will even make their way into Burrard Inlet under the Lion’s Gate Bridge. But aside from the many stunning, largely traditional First Nations works one sees at galleries, museums and at the airport, the orca has not been all that well served here in terms of public art. This is not the case just two hours south of the border…

On a recent trip to Seattle I visited an incredibly effective installation I’d read about over a decade ago but had never searched out — I’d mistakenly believed it to be situated in some remote coastal location. My memory had it overlooking the open Pacific somewhere and being comprised of submarine conning towers. It sounded fantastic…but inaccessible. Thankfully, it’s actually located in Magnuson Park at Sand Point in Seattle (the site of a former U.S. naval base) which is only a stone’s throw from Seattle’s University District. That makes it accessible to any day-tripper to the Emerald City. And it’s well worth your time.

University of Washington sculpture professor John T. Young’s “Fin Project” was installed in 1998 and uses diving-plane fins from decommissioned U.S. navy attack submarines from the 1960s, which are arranged in the earth to simulate the dorsal fins of a large orca whale pod. The immediate visual connection between a fleet of nuclear attack subs and an orca pod is stunningly clear and is, by turns, both beautiful and sinister, depending largely on the weather and the angle of view. This ambitious piece works on so many levels I couldn’t help but wish we had its equal in Vancouver. It also represents the ultimate in recycling. “From Swords into Plowshares” is the subtitle of the project thus placing it in the additional realm of peace activism. And as a side benefit, it also represents a portion of the US defense budget being returned to the people in the form of art.


So what does Vancouver have to offer on the orca front? Well, besides those free-standing orcas that littered the city some years ago (including the horrific Orca Elvis which stood outside the now-extinct Virgin Megastore), we have Doug Coupland’s charming Digital Orca which largely welcomes tourists to the Convention Centre Plaza on the downtown waterfront.

Contrasting The Fin Project with Digital Orca is perhaps unfair. Tourists love it. It’s hard not to like. The sculpture gives the viewer the impression of looking at a 3D pixelated orca. I’ve often heard it referred to as the “Lego whale” which, given the world’s current fixation on Lego (TM) is perfectly reasonable. There will probably be some differing generational interpretations made here. Coupland’s statement on the accompanying plaque states that he is “making a familiar symbol of the West Coast become something unexpected and new.”  Well, yes. It does that but it also feels a little too clever. I do like it. But I’ll never feel a need to revisit except perhaps to meet a friend for a walk around the seawall. The Fin Project, however, will remain on my list of “must dos” when visiting Seattle. It’s a vastly more impressive and powerful work. It demands you spend some real time in its presence.

Here are some more public representations of these incredible creatures. Variations can be found all over the province on the sides of supermarkets and tourist kiosks. These are all from the Vancouver area.


Mural on Victoria Drive


From “Feel-good Orcas” in VR #3, Fall 2004. This one was mounted outside the Virgin Megastore at Robson and Burrard. The location was once home to the Vancouver Public Library. It is now a Victoria’s Secret outlet.


One of the “Feel-good Orcas” in a downtown law office. Auctioned off to benefit Easter Seals and the Canucks For Kids Fund, these sculptures still manage to pop up in unlikely places.



Both of these can be seen on the side of a hotel as you approach the city northwards via the Granville St. bridge. The mural is in stark contrast to the squalor of the hotel.

And an updated view as of February 6th, 2015

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