Gibraltar Deflates Celebratory Annual Balloon Release

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Red, white and polluted all over: the Gibraltar National Day balloon release. (Photo: InfoGibraltar /flickr)

The smaller and more far-flung British Overseas Territories are home to some idiosyncratic celebrations. On Tristan da Cunha, aka the most remote inhabited place on Earth, island denizens come together to hunt rodents on Ratting Day. On Bounty Day, residents of Pitcairn Island — all 56 of them — build replicas of the ill-fated merchant ship HMS Bounty and burn them in honor of their mutineer heritage.

Bermuda Day, held on May 24, involves a parade. But more importantly, it marks the start of the shorts-as-business-attire season. Montserrat, an isolated and volcanically active Caribbean island, really gets into St. Patrick’s Day — it’s the only place outside of Ireland where the celebration is observed as a national holiday.

While not as odd as these holidays, the fiercely proud and wildly diverse residents of Gibraltar — you know, that petite peninsular territory across from Morocco that's famed for its really large limestone rock — have observed National Day every Sept. 10 since 1992. The inaugural celebration was held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the sovereignty referendum of 1967 in which Gibraltarian voters were given the choice to remain self-governed under British sovereignty or to pass under Spanish control. Gibraltarians overwhelmingly chose the former and, to this date, Spain and the U.K. are still squabbling over the 2.6-square-mile peninsula that juts into the Mediterranean.

Spats over sovereignty aside, Gibraltarians party hard when September 10 rolls around. Everyone dresses in red and white and dances in the streets. A “children’s fancy dress competition” is a National Day staple as is a huge concert and fireworks show. While less political and more celebratory than in past years, rousing speeches on the topics of freedom and identity are still very much part of the festivities.

And then there’s the balloon release. Every September 10 since 1992, 30,000 red and white balloons have been set adrift from atop the Parliament Building at Grand Casements Square. Not this year.

There’s no arguing that the annual Gibraltar National Day balloon release, one of the largest in the world, is a stunning sight. I mean c’mon, 30,000 balloons — it's impressive, hugely symbolic stuff. I’m guessing that there’s not a dry eye in the entire territory when those red and white orbs go sailing into the azure Mediterranean sky.

There’s also no arguing that balloon releases, particularly such massive ones, are terrible for the environment. Much like ozone-depleting aerosol hairspray, balloon releases have largely fallen out of favor since their 1980s heyday. While they haven’t disappeared completely, they’ve become increasingly rare as we’ve come to collectively realize that the detrimental impact that hundreds of deflated rubber or latex balloons can have on wildlife, particularly marine life, simply isn’t worth a few minutes of stirring spectacle. At the end of the day, joyous littering is still littering.

It took a while for Gibraltar to get the memo. But this year, for the first time in 24 years, there will be no release.

Gibraltar National Day balloon release
The end of an era: 300,000 balloons will no longer float into the sky above Gibraltar come September 10. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Self Determination for Gibraltar Group (SDGG), which organizes National Day and its signature balloon extravaganza, made the announcement earlier this week.

Reads a press statement:

The day is meant to be a celebration of our identity and, of course, of our right to freely elect our political future and the sovereignty of our land. It is a day in which Gibraltarians send a message to all that no one will ever impose their wishes on us and over our Rock.
Over the years, however, the release of balloons as part of the festivities has become an important part of the day. Seeing the red and white balloons floating in the sky has evoked passion and sentiment in a huge number of Gibraltarians as the symbolic representation of our freedom.
There has nevertheless been a growing number of credible national and international organisations and people who, in particular over the last few years, have highlighted that releasing helium filled balloons is likely to be harmful to the environment and animals.

Notes SDGG chairman Richard Buttigieg:

National Day celebrates our future, the future of our land and our right and our children's right to decide it. It must therefore be something we celebrate with all necessary symbolism but sustainably. We cannot be irresponsible about an event that could have negative environmental impact. We must therefore act. Please let us not be divided by this issue and, instead, let us use the opportunity to once again show the world how creative and inspirational Gibraltar can be when fighting for its rights. With new ideas and a sustainably symbolic representation of our rights National Day can be even better!

Good on Gibraltar! Although overdue, the decision to put the kibosh on the balloon release is a welcome one. The SDGG has been under pressure for a while to deflate the balloon release portion of the festivities with some anti-balloon release groups such as Balloons Blow likening the ceremony as an example of “annual mass aerial littering.”

Lewis Pugh, a British endurance swimmer and activist who serves as U.N. Patron of the Oceans, was amongst the most vocal opponents of the practice.

He notes: "Balloon releases pose a serious threat to the world’s wildlife by adding to the alarming levels of marine and terrestrial plastic pollution. Ending the tradition will not just help protect the wildlife, seas and farmlands around Gibraltar; it also sends a powerful message to the organisers of the few remaining mass balloon events that take place around the world."

While all animals are vulnerable to balloon-based pollution, Gibraltar’s unique location makes it likely that a large number of the 30,000 balloons released over the past two decades eventually wound up in the waters surrounding the territory, waters that are filled with sea turtles, dolphins, whales and other forms of marine life that might accidentally ingest the balloons, mistaking it for food.

This all said, the SDGG realizes that a National Day without a massive balloon release is, well, not really National Day at all. For many Gibraltarians, it’s a bummer. Hopefully many more will realize that it’s for the best and the show will go on. In fact, the SDGG is open to ideas for “inspirational and emotive” balloon release alternatives and is soliciting the public for their thoughts. The group claims that it will “consider all viable options.”

Via [The Guardian]