The sun was finally shining and the birds were singing their morning song when the Skywhale took its maiden voyage over the city of Galway on July 15, 2015, giving some commuters, early-morning risers, and even a few cows an unexpected surprise.

The last thing in the world you’d expect to see out your window while drinking your coffee, or while driving into work, is a giant whale-like hot air balloon floating above but then again, it is the Galway International Arts Festival time when anything can happen, right?

It is a magical time in the city when strange creatures can take to the air; the only thing standing in the way is the weather. However, patience is a virtue and the team behind the Skywhale had it in spades, waiting for the right weather conditions to finally show off this magnificent creation.

The flying sculpture, which measures 100 feet long and 70 feet tall, was the creation of Australian artist Patricia Piccinini. Since its arrival to the city, it thrilled the public while tethered at NUI Galway and at South Park in the Claddagh area of the city. At around 7:30 am, the Skywhale got its chance to finally be set free, with this lucky reporter going along for the ride.

Soar over gorgeous County Galway in a hot air balloon

Enjoy the breathtaking view from the Skywhale as it takes its maiden flight over Ireland for the Galway International Arts Festival.Video by Martina Nee.

Posted by on Friday, July 17, 2015

The Galway Airport in Carnmore was the launch site for the balloon and from there it rose gracefully into the air. As commuters on the N6 hurriedly made their way to work, we floated overhead taking in the serene, beautiful sight of the rugged Connemara mountains far off in the distance and the city below. Skimming across the beautiful waters - sometimes at just three metres above - the balloon made its way past Oranmore and Rinville West to finally land in a field taking a farmer, and a number of his terrified cows, by surprise.

It was an exhilarating experience, a chance to see Galway from a very different perspective and to understand the attraction of hot air ballooning. After 30 years in the business, Kiff Saunders, director and chief pilot of Global Ballooning Australia, is as passionate about ballooning as he ever was, particularly now that his son Paterson has joined him.

Kiff said: “This is what I live for, to be asked to go to these exotic places and do this type of work. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

"I’m here with my son too. He’s just finished school and we’ve been to the North Pole in June and now here in Galway in July, so it’s not too bad.

"I’ve waited a long time for this moment. Paterson was in the womb when I was setting up a balloon company in Kathmandu in Nepal, so he’s been traveling around with me, but now he can fly the balloons. It’s very special.”

Of his time spent in Galway so far and the reaction to the Skywhale, Kiff said: “This is my first time in Ireland, it’s spectacular. I’m really excited to be here. The festival has been terrific. I’ve gone around to see some of the acts, I went to a comedy gig yesterday, and I’m looking forward to the next 10 days of checking out some of the rest of the acts.

“The Skywhale looks excellent and the reaction has been phenomenal. It’s all been extremely positive, a high level of excitement.”

The Skywhale has certainly received a lot of attention, due to its rather unusual look. The balloon was commissioned ahead of the centenary of the Australian capital Canberra in 2013 and since then has been brought to many events around the world.

*Originally published in 2015. Last updated in May 2023.