Christina Trapani pulled a metallic-coated balloon, ribbon still attached, from the sandy beach on Fisherman’s Island — one of 22 that eventually were recovered from a quarter-mile of beach she and her team survey for Virginia’s marine debris program.
Trapani, from the Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Program, knows that for every balloon she extracts from the sand, hundreds more have made their way into rivers, coastal waters and open ocean — and into the stomachs of sea turtles and other marine animals that mistake them for a favorite food, jellyfish.
“People call these ‘Mylar’ balloons,” said Trapani, who has seen the impacts on sea turtles found in or near the Chesapeake Bay. “But really, they are plastic balloons with a metallic coating.”
While the impacts of balloons and their attachments on marine life are well-documented, the fate of the metal when it breaks down in the water is not known.
Laura McKay, director of Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management program, and her colleagues want to tackle the special problem of balloons as part of Virginia’s marine debris reduction program.
Balloons are often intentionally released, and with emotional meaning, according to the Alliance for Balloon Education. Balloons to celebrate achievements, or to remember departed loved ones, fly to the heavens, only to land someplace else, impacting scenery, wildlife and waterways.
In Virginia, it is unlawful to release 50 or more balloons at one time. This is a step in the right direction, said Katie Register of Clean Virginia Waterways. Changing our behavior is another, more difficult, path to effect change. “If we can reach people — and businesses — and offer another way to meet their needs,” Register said, “we can start to reduce the number of balloons that are released.” Blowing bubbles or other symbolic gestures might be just as satisfying, she said.
At the core is education — and data. This is why Clean Virginia Waterways and the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center are conducting the Virginia Balloon Study, which is part education, part citizen science. Balloons and balloon fragments, when found, can be logged online — and will help researchers understand how balloons end up on beaches.
Trapani and Register, who have logged hundreds of hours gathering data, said they see spikes of specialty balloons after holidays like Valentines and Mother’s Day. But the one Trapani pulled from the sand was a generic “Happy Birthday” balloon.
One less hazard for marine life is cause for a small celebration.
Go to https://sites.google.com/site/virginiaballoonstudy/home to log data on balloons recovered in Virginia.