Who doesn’t like balloons? I love them. I’ve seen them light up my son’s face with happiness. Bobbing blues, reds, yellows and greens are sure-fire feel-good colors. Balloons are friendly. And if you ask my son, a party isn’t a party unless there are balloons. But sadly, I have seen a downside to these happy float-on-air friends of ours. I’ve witnessed their effect on the ocean, turning it into a post-party graveyard when unaware revelers release them into the sky.
I spend a lot of time offshore, and over the years, balloon sightings have become more and more prevalent. Some of the balloons are latex, which, according to the U.K.-based Marine Conservation Society, breaks down over months and sometimes years. In the meantime, the latex drifts with the wind and current, sometimes crossing paths with curious turtles, dolphins, whales and fish.
Many of the balloons I see are Mylar, and they do not break down as quickly. In fact, the MCS says that several years ago, a sperm whale was found dead from starvation because the mammal ate a Mylar balloon that lodged inside its stomach, preventing it from feeding.
Whether it’s a single “Happy Birthday” balloon or a bunch of them acknowledging a momentous occasion, once they go into the sky, well, what goes up must come down. Oftentimes, they travel a few miles offshore and land in the water, littering the sea that yachtsmen treasure. The MCS says that 10 percent of the balloons that go into the sky do not burst but, instead, float back down to the earth or sea. The ones that do burst can still leave remnants in the water. On a recent trip about 50 miles off New York, I counted two dozen sets of balloons in one morning. In fact, one arch-shaped group of blue-and-white latex balloons, in numbers too many to count, at first looked like a small boat on the horizon.
More than 1,248,892 pieces of balloon litter have been removed from the world’s beaches in the past 25 years, says International Coastal Cleanup, a 150 member-country volunteer organization. If you see balloons in your voyages, pick them up and dispose of them ashore. And if you like balloons, go ahead and enjoy them — but don’t let them fly away. A moment of wonder can cause a sea of damage.