Have you ever been to a balloon release event? I have. 20 years ago. It was a memorial for a neighbor child who passed away at 7 years old from bone cancer. His parents spent all their money on searching for a cure for their son. They took him all over the world experimenting with different modalities once western medicine could not help him anymore. They were financially broke. To celebrate his life, they put together a memorial for his life at a local park.
Stories and memories were shared, and for a final send off, about 200 balloons were released while listening to “Soak up the Sun,” his favorite Cheryl Crow song (hold the judgement… I said it was 20 years ago and he was 7). I remember looking up through my tears (an ugly-cry type of event) to the sky and watching the balloons until they faded out of view. I also remember thinking, “I wonder where these balloons will end up?”
Well honey, now we know where balloons land… in the ocean. They land in the rivers, lakes, and streams. They land in the forest. And guess what? They confuse the heck out of animals.
Sea turtles eat everything. They eat whenever something becomes available. They eat sea grass, shellfish, and jellyfish. Unfortunately, they eat a ton of plastic too. Plastic grocery bags and those fancy, colorful mylar foil balloons everyone buys for birthdays and graduations floating on the surface of the ocean are often mistaken for jellyfish. Do you know what happens to turtles when they fill up on plastics, garbage, balloons, etc.? Their intestines become impacted. Their precious turtle bodies are unable to break down the garbage and it just sits inside of them, making them feel full. They stop eating because of this and become malnourished and essentially starve to death.
This probably sounds brutal, and maybe it is... but hopefully you will remember this the next time you consider buying a sparkly balloon for your bestie’s birthday. (Do the turtles a favor, skip the ballon!)
I have seen plastic bags and a variety of types of balloons on the surface of the ocean, as well as below the sea while scuba diving (not to mention countless plastic bottles, beer bottles, bottle caps, Styrofoam, fishing line, fishing poles, etc.). I can see why they get mistaken for jelly fish or some sort of vegetation. These items are commonly tangled up in the very items that sea turtles eat. I have unwrapped countless bags and strings from balloons from around precious corals and sponges. It is heartbreaking and serves me up an immense distaste for people in general. It is a simple task to throw away trash in the proper receptacle, just like it is easy to put your shopping cart in the cart return. People need to do better!
Let us talk about the ribbon and string that commonly is included with that fancy balloon for a moment. What do you think happens to animals who unknowingly swim into a mess of it? You got it! They get tangled. This is also called entrapment. These ribbons and strings quite commonly wrap around turtle flippers and get tighter and tighter, even cutting into their skin. This restricts movement. Turtles need their flippers to get to the surface to breathe as well as escape predators like hungry sharks.
These strings and ribbons (and fishing line and nets and rope, etc.) commonly get wrapped around dolphin flippers and flukes as well causing similar issues of not being able to escape predators, problems getting to the surface to breathe, and also limits their ability to catch their food.
The good news is awareness and education are much more available than it was 20 years ago. Social media has been a gigantic help on spreading the importance of reducing plastic use, recycling as much as possible, and making sustainable choices in our daily lives. A great example is the use of plastic straws. Many restaurants have switched to paper straws. This is an amazing thing considering how many straws a day one restaurant can put out.
There are many ways to participate to continue such positive change. It is as simple as switching to a reusable water bottle instead of plastic, skipping the balloon decorations for parties, and picking up litter when you see some. You can also get involved in beach clean ups, forest clean ups, and ocean clean ups. Many dive shops host underwater cleanups and offer educational certifications like PADI’s Project Aware specialty “Dive Against Debris.” Also, there are programs and organizations that you can check out and support such as “Balloons Blow Don’t let Them Go” (https://balloonsblow.org/). Together we can do better!