Kitsap filmmaker takes on balloon industry in new documentary

The documentary “Rubber Jellyfish,” from Kitsap local Carly Wilson, exposes the dark underside of a popular consumer product.

A new documentary from Kitsap County’s Carly Wilson takes aim at an unlikely enemy of the environment, ocean life and even of human health: the balloon industry.

“Rubber Jellyfish” is a feature-length film from Wilson, a zoologist based in Queensland, Australia and an alumnus of Bremerton’s Olympic High School.

The film, which will be screened in Bremerton next month, is a searing indictment of the widespread practice of “balloon release ceremonies,” common at weddings, funerals and other occasions across the globe, and an investigation into trade organizations like Australia’s Balloon Artists and Suppliers Association that downplay or “green wash” the harms done by the popular consumer product.

“We all know that throwing rubbish on the ground is littering,” a film synopsis states. “So why is letting a balloon float away seen as something different?”

When helium balloons are released into the air, they often burst at high altitudes. When they fall back down to Earth they take a frayed shape that looks a bit like a jellyfish, and can harm wildlife who often confuse them for food.

Sea turtles have borne the brunt of balloons’ harmful effects, studies have shown. According to a 2012 University of Queensland study, 78 percent of rubber products found inside deceased sea turtles were balloon fragments.

Species of seabirds, whales, seals and land mammals can also suffer choking and entanglement deaths from balloon fragments, according to the Florida-based nonprofit Balloons Blow.

Some jurisdictions in Australia, Europe and the U.S. – including Bainbridge Island – have banned the practice of releasing helium balloons out of environmental concerns. But it’s still common worldwide in part, Wilson says, because balloon manufacturers and lobbying organizations claim the products are environmentally safe.

“The main thing I’m trying to do is dispel the mythology that balloons are environmentally friendly and biodegradable,” Wilson said.

“Local balloon stores in Australia and around the world say latex balloons are environmentally friendly. Websites say they would not pose a threat to sea turtles,” she said, “which is a total lie.”

Studies have shown balloons can maintain their shape for at least 12 months in saltwater, and possibly longer.

Wilson moved to Australia in 2006 after graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in wildlife science, for a job with the RSPCA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Her mother is Australian-born, and Wilson has dual-citizenship.

In recent years she has coupled her work in animal welfare with an interest in documentary filmmaking. She’s currently working with the Queensland University of Technology on a PhD dissertation on the impacts of environmental documentaries.

She said she was inspired to make “Rubber Jellyfish” in part because the practice of balloon release ceremonies is so frivolous, and yet so damaging. Nearly all species of sea turtles are classified as endangered, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

“A lot of us have gone on vacation and have gone snorkeling with sea turtles, and things like that,” Wilson said. “The fact that they’re getting knocked out for something as dumb as releasing balloons is just wrong.”

She said in making the film, she was struck by the might of powerful lobbies like Australia’s BASA-A and the United States’ The Balloon Council, an industry group established in 1990.

“They’re actually a very powerful lobbying group,” she said. “You wouldn’t think so for balloons.”

The film will be screened on January 8 at Olympic Cinemas in Bremerton. The screening will include a conversation with supporters including Kathy Park, a retired Bremerton school teacher, and a mother who lost her daughter as a result of inhaling helium, Wilson said.

Tickets can be purchased online at https://rubberjellyfishmovie.com.

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