Douglas Coupland installation raises awareness about ocean pollution

The exhibit is hosted by the Vancouver Aquarium


Reported by Joshua Rey

As Douglas Coupland’s plastic pollution installation at the Vancouver Aquarium draws to a close, more than 600,000 visitors have explored the exhibit since its opening in almost a year ago.

Photo by Kirsten Clarke


Vortex, which opened in May 2018, centres around an installation that uses 50,000 litres of water and plastic collected from the beaches of Haida Gwaii. This is used to form a sea of floating garbage around four figures standing or sitting in a Japanese fishing boat, lost in the 2011 tsunami and recovered on the shores of the northern B.C. island in 2017.


The figures represent the past in the form of artist Andy Warhol, and the future, as immigrant children who are documenting the state of the oceans using their cellphones, amidst sea birds perched on plastic waste.

Linda Laverge, the manager of visitor experience, of the one million visitors to the aquarium since Vortex’s opening, 60 per cent explored to exhibit.

“We have received incredible feedback from visitors saying that the installation is eye-opening, thought-provoking and shocking,” Laverge said. “ Visitors tell us that they are inspired to make positive changes in their everyday lives.”

The exhibit also draws attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organization dedicated to ridding the oceans of plastic, this is the largest of the five main garbage patches in the world’s oceans, lying between California and Hawaii.

“Plastic can be very harmful,” said Nathalie Graham, an interpretation specialist for the aquarium. “The Vortex exhibit is an effective way to show our visitors what it looks like when plastic is in the ocean.”

Close-up of Coupland’s Vortex installation. All of the plastic and garbage was collected from the beaches of Haida Gwaii. Photo by Kirsten Clarke.

Graham said that the exhibit can help people make small changes in their plastic use so they can help reduce plastic from getting the oceans.


2017 study found that 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean via rivers each year.

The effects of plastic are also seen in B.C.’s marine life. Around 400 sea lions in the province’s waters are estimated  to be caught in plastic, said Dr. Martin Haulena, a veterinarian who works at the aquarium.


Haulena said that plastic is very harmful to sea lions and it is tough for a medical team to help them. The aquarium’s veterinary unit works to disentangle sea lions from plastic throughout the year.

Dr. Martin Haulena. Photo by Kirsten Clarke.

“Plastics such as fishing materials can entangle sea lions,” said Haulena. “It can cause a long and painful death for them. Our teams can’t always be there to disentangle the sea lions because they may be too far away and the weather may be rough.”

Haulena said that the weather must be perfect so they can get to the injured sea lion as quick as possible.

Graham is hopeful that when people see the exhibit, they leave thinking they can make a difference.

“Simple things such as bringing a bag when eating out can make a big impact,” she said. “When people see the exhibit, they realize they can help.”



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