ACT News

Is Skywhale dead? Andrew Barr signals the end is near

Canberra's most controversial hot air balloon, The Skywhale, will be conspicuously absent from the upcoming Balloon Spectacular, with ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr suggesting she may be nearing the end of her life.

But within hours of making the statement, Mr Barr backtracked, saying she was not dead yet and may even be off to fly in Ireland soon.

Skywhale will not be flying in this year's Balloon Spectacular.
Skywhale will not be flying in this year's Balloon Spectacular. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Just how many flights Skywhale has left has become a hot topic after Mr Barr spoke of her demise - particularly when it emerged she had flown just one quarter of her expected flying life.

"The [Skywhale] won't be in Canberra for the Balloon Spectacular this year," he said on ABC radio Friday morning.

"It had a certain number of flights, as all balloons do and I understand it's pretty well flown as many times." 

By 11am however, as Mr Barr declined to answer The Canberra Times' specific questions on her lifespan, he instead posted on Facebook that there are "still a few years left in the old girl".

"She hasn't flown her last flight. She is currently enjoying a well earned rest in Melbourne after a busy couple of years flying through Japan and throughout Australia and is currently in negotiations for an upcoming trip to Ireland," he said. 

It has also been revealed that the Skywhale was turned away from this year's Balloon Spectacular.

Events ACT, who run the festival, confirmed the breasted beast had been turned away but said the owners applied too late. 

"Unfortunately at this time the selection process was complete and the budget was already allocated," a spokeswoman said.

It is understood the balloon has only flown about 50 hours, while the fabric has an approximate life expectancy of 200 to 300 hours.

Since the balloon is a unique species, one of a kind with lots of appendages, its exact lifespan is not yet known.

The balloon's owners are believed to be in initial discussions about an appearance at the Galway International Arts Festival in Ireland in July.

Designed by artist Patricia Piccinini, "The Skywhale", was commissioned to mark the centenary of Canberra in 2013, at a cost of over $300,000. 

It was not everyone's cup of tea, with former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope slamming the decision to commission the balloon as self-indulgent and an embarrassment.

"There is no doubt that this particular episode has embarrassed, if not Katy Gallagher as chief minister, it has certainly embarrassed the government and it has certainly done the government political harm.

"I fear that this particular incident, this particular expenditure, this particular piece of public art will come to symbolise the year, and it's divisive, it's controversial," he said in 2013.

But all the controversy may have been worth it.

University of Canberra assistant professor of marketing Joanna Henryks labelled the mammal a "marketing bargain" and said the value of the international coverage the city received would come to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The balloon has become an offbeat mascot for the city, with many locals wearing their love for the aerial beast and crafting "Skywhale" hats and clothing.

The balloon has also found fans further afield.

Most recently she was swanning around Japan in September for the Trans Arts Tokyo festival.

Mr Barr said there would be other new balloons at the upcoming festival.

"There are of course a number of new characters," he said, "the Yoda balloon and an Angry Birds balloon will headline the 2015 Balloon Spectacular event".

Mr Barr's comments were not the Skywhale's first reminder of her mortality. Some of her parts had to be rushed to the UK just before her maiden Canberra flight in May 2013 for emergency surgery.

The balloon remained the property of the Melbourne-based company Global Ballooning, not the ACT government, after it was commissioned.

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