From a distance the curving white whale skeleton and the dangling, colourful jellyfish tentacles look beautiful – but move in close and the aesthetic gives way to something completely different. Far from being natural wonders, the artworks are made of plastic bottles, rubber tubing, ropes, cans, foam and myriad other remnants of debris.

The stunning (and disturbing) exhibition, Washed Ashore, in the Pachyderm Building at the San Francisco Zoo, depicts 14 giant sea life sculptures created from the thousands of pounds of garbage that have washed up on Pacific Ocean beaches over the last three years.

“You can find this much garbage on any beach in the world,” said lead artist Angela Haseltine-Pozzi. “It’s horrifying.”

And it’s meant to be.

Each one of the 14 animals represented – from invertebrates to marine mammals – is threatened in some way by marine debris. Plastic is getting into the food chain and trapping animals across the world.

Hazeltine-Pozzi used hundreds of volunteers to process the rubbish and turn it into usable building materials, designing the exhibits to be both educational and interactive.

Grab a couple of drumsticks and pound on the Styrofoam coral reef; run your fingers along the corrugated rubber skin of the 10ft long sea eel; squeeze and crinkle the plastic bottles and bags that make up the giant sea anemone; and stand inside giant jellyfish tentacles, spinning them around you. Next to each piece is signage that describes the animal and the sculpture’s materials.

The San Francisco Zoo artworks are part of a larger 30-piece exhibition that is travelling around the United States this summer. Other sculptures can be found at Sea Worlds in Orlando, Florida; San Antonio, Texas; and San Diego, California, all in hopes of raising awareness of the pollution, especially plastic, that litter the world’s oceans.

“I consider the ocean a sacred place that I have loved my whole life,” said Hazeltine-Pozzi. “I hope the exhibit makes people more aware of what they are tossing away, and where.”

The San Francisco Zoo exhibition runs until 23 September.

Kimberley Lovato is the San Francisco Localite