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Monterey – Happy events like Mother’s Day and college graduations are often marked by colorful bunches of balloons. But what happens to those balloons when they’re released, by accident or on purpose?
In the past few weeks, researchers, whale watchers and ocean lovers have found unusually large numbers of balloons washing up on beaches or floating out at sea. Those plastic ribbons, shiny mylar plastic and stretchy latex can have nasty and permanent effects on the wildlife that encounter them.
A mylar balloon floats on the Monterey Bay in front of Moss Landing. (Courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)
One boat alone retrieved 73 balloons over the course of three days last week, according to Stephanie Marcos. Marcos, executive assistant at research and conservation group Marine Life Studies, found a particular balloon bobbing at the surface; just below, an inquisitive blue shark circled the shiny plastic.
“It’s hard to believe that people still are not aware that releasing balloons into the environment is a bad idea and can harm wildlife,” said Mike Sack, captain and owner of whale-watching company Sanctuary Cruises. “We always pick up balloons when we see them.”
Endangered leatherback sea turtles occasionally swim through Monterey Bay, said Sack, feeding mostly on free-floating jellyfish. But, as researchers and photographers have reported for years, deflated balloons can drift just like jellies in the water and fool hungry turtles. Once the turtles have a mouthful of plastic, they have no choice but to hope the material passes all the way through their digestive systems. If it doesn’t, they could die.
Turtles aren’t alone in consuming plastic trash — long-ranging seabirds like albatross and shearwaters have been known to feed their offspring pieces of latex and mylar, or get tangled in long ribbons and strings. Recently, a dolphin with a rubber glove in its digestive system washed up in the United Kingdom. Sperm whales and tiger sharks have been found with intestines full of litter.
A recent study also found that algae-coated plastic pieces smell like food to hungry anchovies even though they aren’t digestible. Those anchovies, if they don’t starve to death, can then become food for many other animals — even humans.
Balloons have other notable downsides as well. According to Pacific Gas & Electric Co., metallic balloons drifting into power lines caused 456 power outages in Northern and Central California in 2017 alone. And the use of helium to fill party balloons has been controversial; the gas is used in MRI machines, welding equipment, nuclear reactors, and scientific experiments. Although helium is the second most-common element in the universe, its deposits on this planet are finite.
The uptick in balloons found out on the bay often follows major holidays, said Nancy Black, marine biologist at Monterey Bay Whale Watch. Mother’s Day and graduations often prompt people to let go of balloons, which can drift from inland to miles out at sea before they deflate and fall into the water.
Marcos noted that some people release balloons on purpose — one that she found this past weekend had writing on it. “Wish you were here,” the balloon read. “We know you’re watching over us.”
But as poignant as a balloon release might feel to the viewers, for those who find the deflated item later on it feels like a waste. Florida-based nonprofit Balloons Blow suggests alternatives for this kind of memorial: planting trees, floating native flowers down a stream, lighting candles or blowing bubbles.
Jared Figurski, an ocean observatory engineer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, pulled 25 balloons out of the water in the first two days after Mother’s Day.
“It’s an annual phenomenon,” he said.
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Balloons, he said, may not be the top plastics problem out on the water, but they are very visible. And they’re an opportunity to consider “where all of our garbage goes to after we’re done with it. A lot of time,” he said, “it ends up in the ocean.”
“We don’t want this issue to necessarily rain on people’s parade. But we also want to educate people. The hundred balloons that these two groups collected is just the tip of the iceberg.”