A BIRTHDAY celebration sparked a major emergency alert off the West Somerset coast yesterday evening (Thursday).

The Watchet Coastguard received a call of a "hot air balloon in distress", with claims it was dropping into the sea between Hinkley Point C nuclear power station and Kilve beach.

Lifeboats and a coastguard rescue helicopter were scrambled amid fears for people's lives.

But the incident turned out to be a false alarm "with good intent" and the response teams were stood down.

A coastguard spokesperson said: "Due to the seriousness of the report and potential for lives in immediate danger, our coastguard maritime rescue coordination centre at Milford Haven tasked immediately the RNLI lifeboats at Burnham-on-Sea and the Coastguard rescue helicopter from St Athan.

"Whilst the helicopter began a shoreline search from the Hinkley Point end our team began a visual search from the clifftops between Kilve and the Lilstock Range Tower, when we sighted the reflection of something in the water close to the shoreline north west of the tower.

"This was communicated to the helicopter and lifeboat which were closing in on the area, and was soon confirmed by the helicopter as being our potential target, but instead of being a hot air balloon was a series of birthday helium balloons."

The balloons were recovered by the lifeboat crew to ensure no further reports, while the coastguard team undertook a continued visual search from the clifftops with the height advantage, and the helicopter a wider search further out to sea to double check there were no other items in the water.

The spokesperson added: "This was a call with good intent, as from the distance that the first informant had seen the balloons falling from the sky, would have been easily mistaken as a hot air balloon.

"On such a beautiful evening it would have been the perfect evening to have seen hot air balloons in the sky.

"The informant did exactly the right thing and within seconds of calling 999 and asking for the coastguard, rescue teams, lifeboats and rescue helicopters were being despatched to the area.

"Remember in a coastal emergency to dial 999 and ask for the coastguard."