Do you know what a Skywhale is?  No? Until a few a days go I didn’t know either and it’s fair to say, neither did most of Canberra.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, 2013 is the centenary of our lovely city, Canberra. Throughout the year there are many ways to celebrate. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that no one knew that a giant Skywhale was on the cards – not among the classical concerts and the light shows. The organisers kept that very close to their chests. It’s fair to say that the glorious creature has been divisive nationally, but most especially in Canberra itself. Here is the Skywhale (photo by Sean).

SkywhaleShe appeared with her enormous, beguiling breasts over our city and I don’t think any of us knew at first what to make of her. What had she to do with our centenary? What did she say about Canberra? What was the point?

I’ve said a few times to people, if a balloon had been designed for us that in some way actually symbolised our city, it probably would have been safe, potentially boring and we’d have all said ‘gee that’s nice’ and moved on.

The skywhale has divided the city. The skywhale has been the water cooler talking point that divides the crowd because of her cost and because anything that is called art always will. Somehow I think if no one attached the word art to the skywhale, people might not feel there was such a need to have an opinion. We might just have accepted her as a novelty.

But yesterday, on her second flight, we had Alice with us and in the morning we became whale hunters. We followed along on twitter for reports of where she was and how she was travelling. It became one of the most exciting adventures we’ve ever had with Alice. Sean became our navigator. Alice cheered from the back seat and when we first spotted her, high in the clear blue sky, it was a moment we’ll long remember as the moment we first saw the skywhale, a moment we shared completely.

All across the city, we passed cars parked in opportune places trying to catch a glimpse of this most odd looking creature. We found her eventually, parked in Manuka in a locked field. She was there. She was huge. She was incredible. As Alice’s mum later said ‘our new overlord looked hungry.’ I think she looked hungry for acceptance and understanding. The people who gathered beneath her got her. You can’t look into that face and not feel something. Anything. I don’t think revulsion is what happened. Not for those who bothered to find her.


You know what I think is the real triumph of the skywhale? It’s this. For a city such as Canberra, a city perceived nationally as so very dull, we have risen to prominence for something other than politics, something more than taxes and safe predicatability. We have risen, thanks to the Skywhale, to show ourselves as being symbolised by something entirely unsafe, unpredictable and amazing. An ordinary, predictable balloon would have made the audience clap and move on to the next big thing.

The skywhale, with her mammaries which claim to be a comment on nature and genetic modification, floats magnificently above our autumnal city and brings us all together. Whether you love her or not, when you look and talk about the Skywhale, you are joined in a communal conversation and for a city so defined by divisive politics, that is no small achievement.

SkywhaleAfter the skywhale landed yesterday, and after the crowds had admired and cheered, we saw her come down. Because she’s so big, because she has so many chambers, bringing her down is no simple matter. Children were encouraged join in.

She touched down, breasts first, most amusingly.


And then the real fun began. I fear regular jumping castles will pale into insignificance after a morning spent jumping on a slowly deflating skywhale.

Deflating the skywhale

It seemed to take hours. We all took off our shoes and got in on the act. Alice, like the other children gathered, lived and breathed the magic of the moment. Rolling, jumping, flinging herself onto any bubbles that appeared in the fabric and then, suddenly, the skywhale was no more. She was a long, sausage shape on the ground, being carefully rolled into her protective casing.

But the magic lived on. In the afternoon we were tired. Alice made a collage of a girl looking at the skywhale. We rang her grandparents and described how she flew and what the chase was like. She could hardly get the words out, such was her excitement and wonder.

This morning she repeated the stories and relived the experience. Somehow, I think in years to come Canberra’s centenary will become defined by a giant whale with ten enormous breasts.

Who could have predicted it.

SkywhalePersonally, I love our skywhale (Alice actually christened her Ashleigh, but I don’t think it’s going to catch on) and I was not sure at first. I’m a convert.



25 thoughts on “Skywhale

  1. Pingback: Hats galore! | Bellsknits

  2. (I know Im late to the party here, but this was so interesting I just had to comment!) Isn’t it fascinating to look at things through children’s eyes? We took our children to see the Patricia Piccinini exhibition at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery a few years ago, and watching them examine the displays was entirely different to my own responses.
    As for the Skywhale, do you think it would have been as divisive if it were not connected to the centenary? If it were part of some other art festival would there have been more interest or a quicker dismissal by the general public?

  3. Hi. Love this post. I am intrigued by the sky whale. I didn’t get to see it but would have very liked to have. I hope it comes back to Canberra so that I can. I love the sense of adventure in your story and Alice’s excitement and easy acceptance of the creature. I think some of people’s concern is the cost and that colours how the sky whale is viewed. Regards.

  4. I love the picture of Alice deflating Ashleigh!!! I don’t really understand modern art and ‘happenings’. I am old fashioned that way and like art to be paintings really!!! I was quite overwhelmed by her nether regions though, she’s a woman through and through!!!

  5. Great post Bells. It certainly sounded like a great adventure and primarily showing a little girl a good time by zooming all over your city in pursuit of a gigantic, funny looking balloon. What could be better!

    Alice is a lucky girl.

  6. I am so glad you, Sean & Alice shared this experience! This will be something you’ll look back at and talk about for years. How fun!

  7. I can’t decide if I think the Skywhale (and I will admit when I saw the title of your post, I thought “what an odd name for a knitted object). I don’t understand the connection but then I don’t know that there always needs to be one. Sometimes art is just art and a huge balloon floating across that gorgeous sky is a chance to stop and feel wonder. (although the whole breast thing kind of threw me, that would never fly here in puritanical US).

    I think you did good by giving Alice a chance to feel some of the wonder. She’ll carry that with her for the rest of her life.

  8. Thanks for a beautifully told story! I love it when art enters the pubic discourse, so I think the whale is (was?) as great success. Personally, I find it very odd-looking, and can’t really say if I do or don’t like it.

  9. As usual, you write a great post on what can only be described as a “controversial” topic. I’m glad you appreciated the art and Alice will have lovely memories for a long time to come!

  10. What a great post! Fun to read, fun to think about, too, what a thing like that means to a city and its people. Very cool.

  11. Sounds like a perfect day. Alice’s excitement is palpable!
    (I actually teared up when you described her phonecall to her grandparents xx )

  12. great post, Bells. I personally find her intriguing, and would have love the opportunity to see her “in the flesh”. wonderful that you shared the experience with Alice too.

  13. I’m glad you had a fun day with Alice. It’s an odd-looking creation, isn’t it, but how much fun to follow it through the sky to its landing point? Like most things, it probably all depends on how you look at it. You, Sean, and Alice chose to look at it as an adventure. Good on you, I say.

  14. My sister was housesitting down your way but past Queanbeyan and saw it several times. She thought it was ugly in the extreme and failed to see any connection between the city and the Skywhale although both were supposed to be finding their place in the environment. Another friend suggested that the connection was a lot of hot air.

    When I first saw it on the news, my thoughts went to the old TV show, ” ‘allo, ‘allo,” with the fallen madonna with the big boobies. Personally, I would rather have seen something more attractive, even if it were still a balloon. I guess it’s a bit like Sydney fireworks. Yes the money could be spent differently, but people still watch the fireworks.

    I doubt there’s anything with which everyone would be in agreement.

  15. The entire premise of your argument is that “people talking about the skywhale” in some way brings money and prestige to the city. I see no evidence that’s the case. All I see is a giant whale which people are mostly ridiculing.
    Talking about something isn’t the same as doing something.

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