A Bill Reid Whale Sculpture and Killer Whales in Captivity

Bill Reid (1920-1998) was a popular and respected British Columbian sculptor and goldsmith. His mother was a member of the Haida Nation and his father was American. Bill didn’t begin exploring his Haida roots until he was an adult. His discoveries influenced much of his work.

“Chief of the Undersea World” is a sculpture of a killer whale designed by Bill Reid and placed outside the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park. The facility contained killer whales when the sculpture was placed in position. Skana—a whale that once lived at the aquarium——had the same name as the mythical being represented by the sculpture. The keeping of whales in captivity has been a contentious issue in Vancouver but appears to be more-or-less resolved

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Chief of the Undersea World; photo by Linda Crampton

Chief of the Undersea World

Bill Reid’s whale sculpture is 5.5 metres high and is made of bronze. Though Bill designed the whale and created a small boxwood model of it, other people were involved in creating the actual sculpture. Unfortunately, by the time of its creation, Bill had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and needed some help.

The sculpture was created in 1983 and unveiled in front of the aquarium on June 2nd, 1984. It was donated by Jim and Isabel Graham, who were the official owners of the sculpture at that time. The whale stands in a reflecting pool of water. The plaque beneath it contains the following inscription.

Skana – The Killer Whale known by the Haida to be chief of the world below the sea who from his great house raised the storms of the winter and brought calm to the seas of summer. He governed the mystical cycle of the salmon and was keeper of all the oceans (sic) living treasure.


The sculpture’s location outside the aquarium; photo by Linda Crampton

History of Killer Whales at the Vancouver Aquarium

Killer whales have the scientific name Orcinus orca and are sometimes known as orcas. The history of orcas at the Vancouver Aquarium is sad, but the story has become happier over time. The aquarium no longer keeps whales in captivity. In addition, it’s very likely that a law will soon pass prohibiting the keeping of any cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in captivity in Canada.

Moby Doll was the first orca exhibited by the Vancouver Aquarium and the first one anywhere that was displayed to the public while in captivity. He was shown in a pen at Jericho Beach in Vancouver in 1964 and died in the same year 86 days later.

Skana and Hyak were the next orcas to arrive at the aquarium. They lived in the main facility in Stanley Park. Skana was captured in the wild in 1967 and was thought to be around six years old at the time. She died in 1980 from an infection but was still remembered by the public when Bill Reid created his sculpture. Hyak joined Skana in 1968 and died in 1991.

A female named Bjossa and a male named Finna were the last orcas to arrive at the aquarium. They were captured in 1980 and reached the facility shortly after Skana’s death. They produced calves, which didn’t live for long. Finna died in 1997. In 2000, the aquarium announced that it would no longer keep killer whales in captivity (though it still had beluga whales) and Bjossa was sent to SeaWorld San Diego in the United States. She died from a respiratory illness in 2001.

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Two killer whales or orcas; public domain photo by skeeze

Some Good News in 2018

In January, 2018, the aquarium voluntarily announced that they would no longer keep cetaceans in captivity. There are two exceptions to this rule. One is Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin with flippers that were partially amputated in an unknown event before she arrived at the aquarium. The injuries can be seen in the photo below.  Helen has been deemed unreleasable by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Her situation is difficult. She should have companions, but she isn’t young and the journey to another facility could be dangerous.

The other exception is cetaceans that are rescued. The Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is part of the aquarium but is located outside of Stanley Park. The centre cares for stranded marine mammals and then releases them into the wild. The problem is what to do with any rescued animals that are deemed unreleasable once they recover as much as possible from their injuries. They might be kept off-exhibit, but they may need to be transferred to a facility in another country if the law described below passes. Sea pens are sometimes suggested as intermediate habitats between life in a tank and life in the wild and might be acceptable under the new legislation.

In October, 2018, a bill prohibiting the keeping of cetaceans in captivity was passed by the Canadian Senate. The bill has to be passed by the House of Commons in order to become law, but this is expected to happen. The legislation will apply not only to the Vancouver Aquarium, which has voluntarily passed its own “law”.  Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario, houses captive cetaceans and appears to be the main target of the new legislation. It’s possible that the law will allow for gradual changes in aquariums instead of immediate and complete changes, which could be helpful for Helen.


This is a photograph of Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin. I took the photo while she was in her shallow tank. She also has a deeper one.

Personal Observations and Thoughts

I’ve lived in the Greater Vancouver area for a long time and have seen some of the changes at the aquarium. When I first visited the facility when Skana and Hyak were alive, the whales that lived there performed the typical behaviours used to entertain the public at the time, including high leaps out of the water. Over time, the cetacean shows were gradually toned down and became more educational. The whales and dolphins eventually performed relatively simple behaviours, such as displaying a flipper, their caudal fins (or tail), or their belly as the announcer described their external anatomy and then demonstrating their swimming ability.

I lived here when the aquarium announced when it would no longer catch cetaceans in the wild but only obtain them from other institutions, then said that they would no longer house killer whales, and finally said they would no longer house any cetaceans at all. The changes have been gradual but significant.

It’s true that getting a close view of a cetacean is educational and fascinating and that captive animals can help wildlife researchers learn more about their species. In my opinion, this isn’t a justification for keeping cetaceans in captivity. They are intelligent beings that roam for long distances in their natural habitat and often live with many others of their kind. Keeping them captive in a small tank with little to do is a horrible fate for them to face.


The Vancouver Aquarium celebrates 60 years from the Vancouver Sun

Orcas at the Vancouver Aquarium from the Orca Network

Girl in a Wetsuit Sculpture in Stanley Park

“Girl in a Wetsuit” is an iconic sculpture in Stanley Park, Vancouver. The girl is located on top of a large rock near the seawall. The rock may or may not be partially covered by the tide, depending on the current conditions, but the girl is always visible. She’s meant to be seen by people travelling along the path on top of the seawall and is a popular sight. She’s sometimes referred to as the “Little Mermaid” after the famous Copenhagen sculpture.


Girl in a wetsuit and bull kelp; photo by Linda Crampton

Elek Imredy and his Girl in a Wetsuit Sculpture

The sculpture was placed on the rock in 1972 and was created by Elek Imredy. It’s located on the north shore of Stanley Park next to Burrard Inlet and is best reached from a route or path near the waterfront. Imredy (1912-1994) was Canadian and lived in Vancouver but was originally from Hungary. He is known for the creation of other statues as well as “Girl in a Wetsuit”.

The statue was based on the pose of a model named Debra Harrington, who was one of Imredy’s friends. It’s made of bronze and depicts a woman sitting on the rock. She’s wearing a wetsuit and has a mask on her forehead and flippers on her feet. She seems to be thinking about something as she looks into the distance.

There’s often more to see than just the girl. Birds such as gulls and cormorants perch on her head and bull kelp can sometimes be seen bobbing on the surface of the water around her, as seen in my photo above. The backdrop of activity in Burrard Inlet is often interesting as well as the condition of the water and the sky.

Rumour and Controversy

The sculpture is much-loved but is also somewhat controversial. A rumour says that it’s a loose copy of the “Little Mermaid” sculpture in Denmark. Imredy knew of the rumour and denied it. He said that he wanted to create a sculpture of a life-sized scuba diver for the rock, since the sport was becoming popular in Vancouver at the time, and that he had no intention of copying the Copenhagen sculpture.


A different view of the sculpture; photo by Bobanny, public domain license

The Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen

“The Little Mermaid” also depicts a girl sitting on the rock, surrounded by the ocean, and looking into the distance. Her expression looks more sad than pensive, however, as befits the character that she represents. In this case the girl is a mermaid who is wearing no clothes, as might be expected for the mythical creature. The statue was unveiled in 1913 and is located by the Langelinie promenade in Copenhagen.

The mermaid was created by Edvard Eriksen (1876-1959) and is made of bronze. She has an interesting history. She is based on the little mermaid in the fairy tale written by Hans Christian Anderson. Two women posed for the sculpture. One was a Danish ballet dancer named Ellen Price, who posed for the head and face. The dancer refused to pose in the nude, however, so Eriksen’s wife Eline was the model for rest of the body.

Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid

Hans Christian Anderson published his story in 1836. It a sad, dark, and somewhat disturbing tale about a mermaid who wants to become a human. She yearns to obtain an immortal soul after she falls in love with a human prince. She experiences physical pain and psychological heartbreak in the effort to reach her goal.

In the original ending of the story, the mermaid fails to achieve her goal and disintegrates into sea foam. In a revised ending created later by the author, she is told that if she does good deeds for humans for three hundred years she will gain an immortal soul. The story can be read for free at the Project Gutenberg website, which is a great resource for public domain books and stories.

The Vancouver Sculpture

The Vancouver sculpture is linked to none of the pathos of the Danish one, so from that point of view it could be seen as unrelated. On the other hand, it does depict a female on an ocean rock close to shore who is looking into the distance and the girl does have flippers that are reminiscent of a mermaid’s tail.

Both sculptures are interesting. The only one that I can visit in person is the Vancouver one, and I’m happy to do so. I always stop for a little while to look at the girl in the wetsuit before I continue my walk along the seawall.

The Opera Walk in Vancouver’s Italian Garden

The Italian Garden is an attractive site in Hastings Park, which is located in the northeastern part of Vancouver. The garden contains some interesting features in its relatively small area. One of my favourites is the opera walk. The walk is bordered on one side by sculptures representing characters from famous Italian operas. On the other side are flower beds. In summer, these contain beautiful masses of black-eyed Susan flowers and purple and white coneflowers. The garden is a great place to take photographs. All of the photos in this post were taken by me during my walks in the Italian Garden.


Canio and Turandot in the Italian Garden

Hastings Park

Hastings Park is a large, multi-use area near residences and close to Burrard Inlet. It was willed to the province of British Columbia by its owner in 1888 with the intention of preserving the park as a wilderness area. The plan didn’t work. Today Hastings Park contains many buildings and other constructions. Some of the buildings belong to the Pacific National Exhibition, an organization that runs an annual fair in late August. The park also contains the Playland amusement park, the Hastings Racecourse, and multiple parking lots.

The process of re-greening sections of the park is in progress. Streams that have been covered for many years have been opened up and green areas and walking trails to the inlet have been established. Today Hastings Park contains several smaller parks (defined according to the true meaning of the word) as well as gardens. The situation is much improved with respect to the existence of natural and semi-natural areas, though the buildings still exist.

The Italian Garden

One of the gardens in the park is the Italian Garden, or Il Giardino Italiano. It was created by the local Italian-Canadian community and contains features of a traditional Italian garden. The main entrance is located on Renfrew Street, though it can also be reached from inside Hastings Park. It’s free to enter except during the annual two-week fair at the PNE, which is a sore spot with the local residents. When the fair is in operation, a barrier exists along Renfrew Street. This means that the only way to enter the garden is to pay to enter the fairground.

Like Hastings Park as a whole, the Italian Garden contains several smaller areas. These include a section containing ornamental fountains leading to water channels. The water is a popular play site for children. The garden also contains areas that are ideal for gentle walks and contemplation. One of my favourite sections is the opera walk. The sculptures on the walk and the ones that are an integral part of the fountains were created by Ken Clarke in 2001 and 2002.

The Sculptures and the Operas

The sculptures along the opera walk represent leading characters from six famous Italian operas. More than one sculpture of a particular character can be seen along the route. It’s interesting to note that although these sculptures started their existence as identical copies, the environmental conditions in their immediate surroundings have changed their appearance in different ways. The characters and operas that are represented are briefly described below. As in many traditional Italian operas, the plots all involve love. Four of them also involve death, another common theme in classical operas.



“Pagliacci” was created by Ruggero Leoncavallo and first performed in 1892. In the opera, Canio is an actor who often plays the role of a clown in the plays performed by his troupe. The plot describes the competition for the love of an actress (Canio’s wife) and the death of the woman and her lover at the hands of Canio. The deaths occur during a comedy performance by the troupe and create a dramatic climax to the opera. The last line in the opera is famous. Canio turns to the shocked on-stage audience (and at the same time to the real audience) and says “The comedy is over.”

In the sculpture of Canio, one side of his face is smiling, which represents the clown that he often played. The other side is crying, which represents the sadness of his real life.


The Barber of Seville

“The Barber of Seville” is a comic opera written by Gioachino Rossini and first performed in 1816. Figaro is the barber referred to in the title. The plot involves love, disguises, and schemes. Rosina loves Count Almaviva, who is disguised as a poor student named Lindoro. Rosina is the ward of Bartolo, who wants to marry her in order to obtain her dowry. Figaro helps Rosina and Almaviva in their efforts to become a pair. After many incidents, Rosina and Count Almaviva are married.



Sir John Falstaff is a character in some of Shakespeare’s plays. “Falstaff” is a comic opera about the character written by Giuseppe Verdi and first performed in 1893. As in “the Barber of Seville”, the plot is quite involved. It involves the effort of Falstaff to attract two married women in order to gain access to each of their husband’s money. The women—Meg Page and Alice Ford—discover what Falstaff is up to and decide to teach him a lesson.

Another strand in the plot involves the love of Nannetta Ford (Alice’s daughter) for a man named Fenton. Nannetta’s father disapproves of the union. After many twists and turns, the opera reaches a more-or-less happy ending for everyone.



“Rigoletto” is a tragic Giuseppe Verdi opera that was first performed in 1851. It tells the story of a hunch-backed and often scorned court jester named Rigoletto, his beloved daughter Gilda, and a very unpleasant duke who commits an atrocious act.

The opera ends with the sad death of Gilda, who sacrifices her life for the sake of the duke. Her father picks up a sack containing the dying Gilda, thinking that the duke is the person inside. He is horrified when he learns the truth. I’ve written an article describing the opera in more detail.


A Masked Ball

“A Masked Ball” is another Giuseppe Verdi opera and was first performed in 1859. The plot is set in the United States. This might seem strange for an Italian opera, but the censors of the time demanded changes in the setting and the characters. The original opera seemed too reminiscent of the death of King Gustav lll of Sweden, who died from wounds received at a masked ball.

Riccardo is the Governor of Boston and is organizing a masked ball. He is delighted to discover that Amelia will be attending the ball. She is the woman that he loves, but she’s married to his friend Renato.

After various events, including a prediction by a fortune teller, the ball is held. Renato has discovered that Amelia and Riccardo love one another and has decided to kill Riccardo at the ball. As the governor dies, he says that Amelia has never been unfaithful to Renato.


“Turandot” is an opera written by Giacomo Puccini and was first performed in 1926. He died before it was finished, but it was completed by Franco Alfano. The opera is set in China. Its leading character is the cruel Princess Turandot. The plot involves the efforts of a prince to pass the tests that she sets him so that they can marry as well as the test that he sets her. Though the music is often admired, the opera is controversial today, in part due to the cruelty in the plot and the ethnic stereotypes. Some people say that the opera should no longer be performed.

Enjoying the Sculptures

The sculptures in the Italian Garden can be appreciated without any knowledge of their background. It’s interesting to study the faces that are depicted and to ponder their possible meaning. The names of the relevant operas are written under the sculptures, but in many cases they are hard to read. Knowing a little about the operas that are represented by the sculptures gives an additional meaning to the opera walk and a visit to the Italian Gardens.