Digital Orca Sculpture in Vancouver and Douglas Coupland Facts

Last updated on December 9, 2019


The digital orca sculpture in Vancouver

The waterfront is an interesting area in downtown Vancouver. It has many attractions for tourists and residents as well as some lovely scenery. The area has a large pier with a promenade as well as an enjoyable walking and cycling trail beside the water. One of the attractions of the waterfront is the Digital Orca sculpture next to the eastern building of the Vancouver Convention Centre. The sculptor was Douglas Coupland, who is an artist, designer, and writer.

The Digital Orca was created (or at least installed) in 2009. The sculpture is located at Jack Poole Plaza and is backed by Burrard Inlet and the Coast Mountains. When the sculpture is viewed from the correct angle, Stanley Park can be seen as well. Jack Poole was a businessman who led the committee that successfully won Vancouver’s bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. Unfortunately, he died of cancer before the games began. The plaza named in his honour is linked to the games because it contains the Olympic Cauldron, which was lit during the event. Today the cauldron is lit on special occasions.


The back of the digital orca sculpture and a view of downtown Vancouver

In real life, the orca (Orcinus orca) is also called the killer whale. It’s an intelligent and social animal that can be seen off the BC coast and occasionally in Burrard Inlet. Orcas live in family groups called pods. The orcas off the coast of British Columbia are divided into three groups: the residents, Biggs (formerly known as transients), and the offshore animals. According to the Vancouver Aquarium, the three groups are genetically distinct. In addition, they have different diets, their calls are different, and some other aspects of their behaviour are different as well.

The digital orca sculpture is made of steel covered by powder-coated aluminum. Its surface consists of black and white blocks, which are meant to represent the pixels of a computer monitor. When a viewer is close to the sculpture, the blocks can clearly be seen. As a viewer moves further away, the blocks become less clearly distinguished from one another and gradually start to blend together, just like the pixels on some computer monitors.

A more distant view of the sculpture is shown in the left background of the photo below. The photo was taken when Jack Poole Plaza was being used for the annual Vancouver Christmas Market. The sculpture can still be approached at this time, since it’s located just outside the boundary of the market.


The Digital Orca sculpture, the Vancouver Convention Centre East, and the Christmas Market

Douglas Coupland has said said that he wanted to create an unexpected sensation for the viewer with his orca sculpture. The sensation is greatest when we approach the sculpture from the distance. At first we may think “There’s a giant killer whale sculpture beside the water” as we see the orca. As we get nearer, we may be surprised to see that the whale is made of blocks carefully joined together to create the correct shape and appearance of the orca. When we’re very close to the sculpture, it looks like a meaningless jumble of blocks. As we move away, a pattern emerges and the orca can be seen again.


Douglas Coupland (CC BY-SA 3.0 license, photo provided by the artist under this license)

Douglas Coupland was born in 1961 in Germany on a Canadian NATO base. He lives in Vancouver and grew up in the area. He attended the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, a well-known institution in Vancouver, though at that time it was a college rather than a university. Emily Carr (1871–1945) was a famous painter and writer who was born in Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia.

Coupland has been involved in many creative projects. His first novel was published in 1991 and is entitled Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. Though the term generation X had been used before Coupland’s novel, he gave it its modern meaning. He used the term to describe the demographic group born in the early 1960s.

The boundaries of the different demographic groups vary—sometimes significantly—according to a researcher’s ideas. Today they are approximately as follows.

  • Silent Generation: People born in the mid to late 1920s to the mid 1940s 
  • Baby Boomers: People born in 1946 to the early 1960s
  • Generation X: People born in the early 1960s to the early 1980s (or sometimes the late 1970s)
  • Millennials: People born in the early 1980s to the mid 1990s
  • Generation Z: People born in the mid 1990s to ? (The end date is undecided at the moment.)

Although Coupland trained as an artist, he has become a prolific writer. He’s written short stories, plays, screenplays, and nonfiction as well as novels. He is also a newspaper columnist. Coupland is an Officer of the Order of Canada as well as a member of the Order of British Columbia. In 2017, he received the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence in British Columbia.

Orca and market

Another view of the orca beside the Christmas Market

Today Douglas Copeland continues to mix writing with art and design. The Vancouver Aquarium recently displayed an exhibition that he designed. It opened in May, 2018. It was supposed to end in May, 2019 but ran until November, 2019. The exhibition was called “Vortex”. Its theme was plastic pollution in the ocean.  As the aquarium said, it involved an “imaginative journey to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. The exhibition provided an important message to visitors as well as entertainment.

A highlight of “Vortex” included a battered fishing boat and its crew sitting in a 50,000-litre tank of water filled with plastic debris. Coupland collected much of the plastic from Haida Gwaii,  a beautiful archipelago off the coast of British Columbia. Even here, debris from human activity can be found. The video below shows Coupland collecting material in Haida Gwaii for his exhibition.

Coupland knows that microplastics are the major problem in many parts of the ocean at the moment (and in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), but he wanted to create an effect with the larger pieces of plastic that float on the surface and that people notice. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic made from the degradation of larger pieces. They are widespread on the surface of the ocean and within it.  In some parts of the world, however, bigger and very noticeable pieces of plastic cover beaches and the water, as in the “Vortex” exhibition. Humanity’s effects on the oceans are shameful.

The Vancouver Aquarium is located in Stanley Park and is the headquarters for Ocean Wise. The goal of this organization is to promote an understanding and appreciation of the ocean. It’s also involved in research to learn more about marine life. The aquarium contains both aquatic and terrestrial animals that the public can see. In addition, it runs a marine mammal rescue organization.

The Vancouver Aquarium no longer keeps cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), with the exception of one animal. Helen is a rescued Pacific white-sided dolphin that is quite advanced in years. The last news that I heard was that the aquarium was looking for a new home for her. She is still mentioned on the aquarium’s website, however.

Stanley Park is large (400 hectares) and is located by the ocean. It’s a major tourist attraction in its own right. Outside the aquarium’s main entrance is another orca sculpture, though it was created by a different sculptor. The bronze orca was created by Bill Reid and depicts a killer whale as it might be seen in the traditional stories of the Haida people. The Haida are a group of indigenous people who live on Haida Gwaii. 

billreid whale

Chief of the Undersea World by Bill Reid

Skana – the killer whale known by the Haida to be chief of the world beneath the sea who from his great house raised the storms of winter and brought calm to the seas of summer. (Quote from the plaque by the Chief of the Undersea World sculpture)

The waterfront is always a great place to visit. It’s quick to reach from the downtown area. Walking towards the mountains from the centre of the downtown area will take you there. Turning right from the front entrance of the Waterfront Station will also enable you to reach the digital orca and other attractions. The station is serviced by buses, SkyTrain (a light rapid transit system), SeaBus (which crosses Burrard Inlet), and a train known as the West Coast Express.

In addition to the attractions that are always present by the waterfront, special ones are present at certain times of year, such as on Canada Day (July 1st) and at Christmas time. In summer, cruise ships that will take travellers to Alaska can be seen close-up because the Canada Place pier is a terminal for the vessels. The scenic walking trail that starts at Canada Place goes to Stanley Park and will enable people to reach the aquarium. There are other ways to travel to the park and the aquarium if someone doesn’t want to take this route. 

I visit the waterfront quite often and enjoy exploring the area. There’s always something new to see there, either on land or in the water. I nearly always take a look at the Digital Orca when I’m in the area.


1 thought on “Digital Orca Sculpture in Vancouver and Douglas Coupland Facts

  1. Pingback: Vancouver’s Waterfront Station and the Angel of Victory Statue | BC Write

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