It’s the subject of tourist photographs that are surely tucked away in photo albums around the world: the Chief of the Undersea World. You may know it better as “the killer whale statue” that greets visitors at the front of the Vancouver Aquarium.

During construction of the first phase of the expansion, the statue was safely tucked away at the north end of the Aquarium. After a two year absence, the Chief is back. Watch the time-lapse video below to see how the 5,443 kilogram (12,000 pound) statue was moved back over two nights with the help of a crane.

The iconic statue was made by famed Haida artist Bill Reid in the early 1980s. The project was the brainchild of Aquarium founding director Dr. Murray Newman who says in his memoir Life in a Fishbowl that he “had always wanted something special to mark the entrance of the Vancouver Aquarium.” He worked closely with Jim and Isabelle Graham, patrons of the Aquarium who donated the statue.

The statue was wrapped in protective covering and moved with a crane.

The statue was wrapped in protective covering and moved with a crane.

The sculpture began as a small piece that Bill Reid carved in boxwood. Eventually, after a six month period, Mr. Reid and his team produced a 5.5 metre (18-feet) plaster cast that was sent to New York for casting in bronze. The Chief of the Undersea World was unveiled in a ceremony on the morning of June 2, 1984.

In Haida lore, there are tales of killer whale “tribes” that rule the animals of the ocean. The killer whale is the chief of the sea with the bear being of the land, and the eagle, of the sky. The Haida connected with the supernatural world around them through song, dance and art, and the image of the killer whale features prominently on totem poles, among other forms of story-telling.

Dr. Newman closes the chapter about the Chief of the Undersea World by saying, “If you come back to visit the Vancouver Aquarium in a hundred years, chances are you won’t recognize the place… it may be expanded more or changed altogether. I can’t predict that. What I can predict is that a hundred years from now Bill Reid’s sculpture will still be there, and still holding the eye with its powerful grace.”

In the years since 1984, it’s already proven to be a timeless work of art.


Written by Karen Horak, writer-editor, content and digital experience at the Vancouver Aquarium.

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