Rubber Jellyfish is a feature length documentary about the effects of released helium balloons on ocean wildllife - in particular, Australia’s population of critically endangered sea turtles. The film follows the personal journey of wildlife activist Carly Wilson who discovers, while heavily pregnant, that helium balloons are often released ceremoniously to reveal the gender of unborn babies (and for many other causes) but the majority land in the ocean.
Carly examines the phenomenon that causes balloons to mimic the appearance of jellyfish, a prey that all sea turtles eat, when they rupture high in the earth’s atmosphere. She meets several turtles suffering from the excruciatingly painful and often fatal ‘float syndrome’ which is caused by the ingestion of balloons and other ocean rubbish.
Through the film Carly seeks to understand why and how the multi billion dollar balloon industry has led the public to believe that latex balloons are biodegradable and environmentally friendly despite ample evidence to the contrary. Through her investigative journey, she meets with marine biologists, turtle activists, reps of the balloon industry and policy makers to question why Australia has not taken action against mass balloon releases when it's waters host all six sea turtles on the CITES endangered species list.
The film also explores risks balloons pose to children and teenagers. According to the US-based Consumer Product Safety Commission, balloons are linked to more infant fatalities than any other child product and death by helium inhalation consistently takes lives each year.
How does the project meet the aims of a philanthropic foundation?
We feel our film is a good candidate for philanthropic support because it addresses a threat to sea turtle conservation that is in desperate need of attention and publicity. Most people have at some point in their lives accidentally let go of a balloon and watched, helplessly, as it disappeared into the sky. Most people don’t know, however, that approximately 70% of released balloons land in the ocean (according to the marine science organisation, NOAA) where many go on to become prey to sea birds, whales, dolphins, and sea turtles.
Our film explores a phenomenon that occurs in helium-filled balloons known as Brittle Fracture where balloons that are released travel to an average height of eight kilometres and then burst due to the cold temperatures and low atmospheric pressure. When they burst, most will remain intact but the sides shred, causing the balloons to resemble jellyfish. Many of those that land in the ocean are then preyed upon by species that prey on jellyfish naturally. Our film focusses predominantly on sea turtles because there are only seven sea turtle species on the planet and six are already endangered. Australian waters also hosts all six endangered sea turtle species and Australia is the world leader in research of how marine debris (including balloons) affects sea turtles.
We feel our film has importance in that way that it will not only inform but it also empower people to make some very simple changes that will have far reaching conservation benefits. Our film will also de-bunk a prevailing myth regarding latex bio-degredation. In the late 1980s the “National Association of Balloon Artists” in the United States commissioned a report on the environmental effects of balloon releases. The report was not performed by academics and the findings were never published in a scientific journal however the report has nonetheless been widely distributed on the internet and is still among the first items that will show up on Google Scholar if you search for scientific information about balloon releases. This report determined that balloons are 100% biodegradable and environmentally friendly if they land either on land or in water. It was even so bold as to say that “it would be extremely far fetched to think that one of these small slivers of soft rubber could block the digestive tract of a sea turtle or dolphin“. Since the publication of this report, several appropriately performed scientific studies from major universities have dis-proven it’s findings, demonstrating clearly that balloons are not biodegradable when they land in the ocean. The results of these proper studies, however have been largely lost within the confines of academia. The latex balloon biodegradability issue, and the resulting effects to sea turtle populations, is therefore in dire need of science communicators. Our film will provide a terrific avenue for this area of science to be communicated.
What outcomes do you hope to achieve by making this film and how will you measure its impact?
Aims & Objectives
There are several outcomes that we would like to achieve as a result of our film, some that would occur at the individual level and will be challenging to quantify and others that would be more far reaching and easier to measure.
At the level of the individual and family, we would like to see a trend of people opting not to use helium balloons as party decorations and for small-scale balloon releases (<100 balloons) for private events such as anniversaries, gender reveal parties, and funerals, to become less popular.
At the level of corporations and organisations, we would like to see large, public, balloon releases occurring less frequently and becoming socially unacceptable. We plan to provide free access to the film to organisations that are planning to perform mass balloon releases and then monitor whether or not the releases go ahead. We would also like to see corporations moving away from using balloons in their marketing altogether due to the likelihood of balloons occasionally ‘escaping’. We are excited to report that we are already having some success in this area. During the filming of a beach cleanup on the sunshine coast in preparation for the turtle hatchling season, a balloon with a "Ray White" logo was presented to our crew. On this particular beach, a population of critically endangered loggerhead sea turtles nests. We photographed this balloon and informed the Ray White headquarters in Sydney that it had been found and of the problems helium balloons pose. A rep from Ray White has since informed us that they are going to try to arrange for Ray White balloons to no longer be printed and recommend to all their franchises that they discontinue giving out balloons or using them in their marketing. Assuming this does occur, we will showcase Ray White in the film as an example of a company demonstrating moral integrity and will encourage other companies to follow in their footsteps.
Perhaps the biggest aim of our film is to see Australia take action against balloon releases at a federal level. As it currently stands, policies surrounding balloon litter are handled by the states. Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is the only region in Australia where balloon releases are completely banned. The founder of “Australian Seabird Rescue and Turtle Hospital” in Ballina, however, (which will be featured prominently in the film) also successfully campaigned the New South Wales government to ban mass balloon releases (more than 19), although the release of up to 19 balloons is still permitted. It should be noted, however, that mass balloon releases do still occur in NSW because the policy is largely un-policed and there has not been adequate public education regarding the issue.
What is your education and outreach strategy?
A strong education and outreach campaign is imperative to the success of
any documentary but particularly to ours because our film is challenging a common misconception in the public that balloons are biodegradable. To be successful, our film must not only de-bunk the prevailing mythology regarding latex degradation but also ensure
that enough people view the film and understand it to inspire a change in behaviour.
We are currently building a website and have launched social media accounts
on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We released a ‘meme’ (a photo of three burst balloons in the classic jellyfish shape with an explanation of what they were) onto our social media channels within a week of launching the channels and after three days, the
‘meme’ had been shared on Facebook over 350 times. This is despite the fact that our Facebook account did not yet have even 300 followers. It is clear that there is a strong interest in this issue and that it is not one that most people are aware of.
We will be creating in association with 'Teachers Pay Teachers', two downloadable
education kits for teachers to use in conjunction with our film. One will be targeted to grades 4-6 and the other for grades 9-12. The kits will include worksheets to keep students 'on task' while watching the film and an outline for teachers about how to
conduct a science experiment to help illustrate to students that latex balloons are not biodegradable in salt water systems. We feel it is important that our film is viewed by children because balloons are notoriously associated with child birthday parties.
Making balloons appear “uncool” to children would be a huge conservation victory and would prevent some of the needless deaths of turtles, whales, dolphins, and sea birds. We already have one school that wants to show the film to its students once it is completed
and utilise the education kits. The film maker, Carly, is also planning, as much as possible, to engage with the students that watch the film through classroom Skype calls and in-person visits to some participating school classes within Australia.
We will also be applying for additional funding at a later date (currently we
are applying for production funds) for a screening tour. We have already received screening requests from the Belengen Turtle Festival, Sea Shepherd Gold Coast, and the Australian Bat Hospital. We anticipate many more requests as we continue to build our social
media audience. Carly is also the former supervisor of the RSPCA Wildlife Clinic in Canberra and worked for several years as a paid wildlife rescuer for the coal seam gas industry. As a result of her professional experience, she is very connected to the wildlife
caring community and environmental industry where there is a huge potential for screening opportunities. Carly will speak at the end of the film, answer questions, and bring along several examples of balloons that have burst into jellyfish shapes