Virtual reality experience lets viewers ‘swim’ with Pacific salmon

Uninterrupted brings the journey of the Pacific salmon to city dwellers through a 24-minute interactive virtual reality experience. The show follows the salmon journey without narration, using visual storytelling and a soundtrack of music, sounds, and the voice of Neskonlith elder Mary Thomas speaking in the Secwepemctsín language. 

Director Nettie Wild hopes viewers reflect on the impact cities have on nature through experiencing the beauty and wonder of swimming with the salmon.  

“We’ve had people weep afterwards. Another guy came up to me and said have you ever done peyote? This is better than peyote,” Wild said. 

The virtual reality experience follows Uninterrupted‘s pilot project in 2017, when the show was digitally projected underneath the Cambie Street Bridge throughout the summer. The pivot to virtual reality allows viewers to experience the same show in different locations, while still providing a 3D experience. 

Uninterrupted initially premiered in 2017 as a digital projection underneath the Cambie Street Bridge. (Anthony Diehl)

Chris Lewis provided a welcoming address on behalf of the Squamish Nation on opening night earlier this month in North Vancouver and said the show was “mind-blowing.”

“You really feel that you’re actually underwater with the fish … it felt like we were on the journey with the salmon.” 

The program, which is free to attend, is taking place at several outdoor locations across Metro Vancouver until the end of August. There are 20 distanced seats for each viewing and the 20 VR headsets — which are sanitized using ultraviolet light technology between uses — are synchronized so viewers experience the show at the same time. 

“We wanted to have that sense of community that happened under the bridge where strangers came together and they were able to experience something that’s very special and feel connected,” said producer Rae Hull. 

Closer than they seem

According to Hull, the key message is that migrating salmon are closer to us in the Lower Mainland than it might seem.

“When we are driving our cars, we’re not the only commuters.” 

Uninterrupted will be showing in Vancouver, North Vancouver, and Burnaby this summer, with more locations to be announced. (Maggie Macpherson)

However, Hull says that rather than evoking despair, the project aims to connect the viewer to the wonder of nature. 

“It’s not a stern message delivered with a big voice. It’s about people just giving over to this experience that is a combination of art, technology, and the extraordinary salmon migration.”

The footage was shot during four different salmon migrations over four years across three rivers in B.C.: the Adams River, the Pitt River, and the Sproat River. Producer Betsy Carson said the two main cinematographers learned how to scuba dive in order to get the footage.

The idea for Uninterrupted came to Wild while watching the salmon migration in 2010 along the Adams River. 

“I thought it was like watching colossal moving abstract art. And I thought, it’s not a movie, it’s something bigger.” 

Wild, along with producers Hull and Carson, have been working on this project since 2013 and call themselves the “salmon sisters.”

The project, which was initially shown as a digital projection underneath the Cambie Street Bridge, can now be experienced through virtual reality.  (Uninterrupted)

Salmon in danger

Jason Hwang, a vice-president with the Pacific Salmon Foundation, said there are salmon in streams everywhere in Metro Vancouver, but there are also many ways urban living can harm the fish, including biking through salmon habitats and allowing contaminated storm drain run-off to flow into streams. 

“We need to do everything we can to help our salmon, we need to help them get through a hot and dry year like this, and we need to start to invest in restoration and other salmon recovery measures.” 

The Pacific Salmon Foundation is one of the project’s many sponsors. Hwang said projects like Uninterrupted can help people understand and relate to salmon, and can generate public awareness. 

“Some of our salmon populations are in real trouble.”

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