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Harbour porpoise. Image: Charlie Phillips/WDC

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First whale watch…and balloon watch?

Sam Sanders recently joined us as a summer intern.  On her first whale watching trip, she was appalled that she saw almost as many balloons in the ocean as there were whales.  Read on to learn about this very prominent threat to not only whales, but all marine life.             

 As a WDC intern, many were surprised to hear that I had never seen a whale before, however, that was about to change as I stepped on to the whale watching boat for the first time on Monday. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to expect. Would there be whales breaching left and right? How close would they get? Would I get sea sick? I was trying my best to contain my excitement among meeting the crew and preparing to board passengers. All I could think about was the beautiful wide open ocean ahead.

            As the boat headed out toward the mouth of the Massachusetts Bay we neared the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, one of only 14 sites in the National Marine Sanctuary system. Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary is 842 square-miles of federally protected marine waters, home to about 17 species of marine mammals and a large diversity of other marine life. These waters are particularly abundant with whales that travel here in the summer to feed off schools of sand lance that burrow into the sand. While boats and fishing are still allowed in these waters, other regulations against transferring petroleum-based products, drilling or dredging, producing oil, gas, or minerals, and removing or injuring any marine mammal, reptile, or sea birds are in place to help protect all living and non-living resources within the boundaries.  As we passed Provincetown and neared these federally protected waters, the excitement was building.

           “There are a few blows at 12 o’clock a couple miles ahead,” I heard the naturalist yell to the captain. Obviously the confused expression on my face was apparent and my intern coordinator reassured me that he was using binoculars. Right then it was as if we crossed over the boundary into these protected waters as I started seeing white columns blown into the air all around me. “There is a tail over there! I just saw a tail!” I thought to myself. My life would have been complete at that point, but there was only more excitement to come. I had to restrain myself from grabbing the captain’s wheel and heading straight for the nearest tail slap. It was also at this moment that Monica grabbed the camera and snapped a photo of a shiny, purple mylar balloon floating by the boat. I didn’t think much of it knowing it was one of our responsibilities to record marine debris. It wasn’t until our third, and fourth, and eventually seventh recording of balloons that I realized the extent of the problem.

            From a pirate birthday balloon to “Happy Mother’s Day” and “Congrats Grad,” we had the full spectrum of celebrations now floating atop some of the most sacred and diverse ecosystems in the world. It wasn’t until then did I realize that not even federally protected waters can be protected from the negligence of the human population.

While some balloons may burst and others gradually deflate, they all eventually fall back to earth’s surfaces or oceans where they pose a direct threat to wildlife.  Made out of a mylar nylon material often coated with metallic foil, these balloons are not bio-degradable and they can persist in our oceans for many years. Mammals (such as whales, dolphins, and manatees) and sea turtles mistake these balloons (often clear after the foil has degraded) as potential prey and attempt to ingest them. They could also be ingested accidentally if an animal is enganged in other feeding efforts nearby.  Balloons along with plastic bags and other marine debris become lodged in the intestinal tract and can cause starvation and death. Our records show that out of the trash we have been able to photograph in the last 9 years, over 30% are mylar balloons.  

            As the boat carefully (they are participants of Whale SENSE) maneuvered its way around a mother and her calf, the calf playfully attempting roll overs and kick feeding, it pained me to imagine a once innocent birthday celebration becoming the demise of either of these majestic creatures. As dramatic as it may seem, releasing of balloons, intentional or not, has the potential to become entangled inside a whale’s digestive tract, block a dolphin’s esophagus, or become wrapped around a manatee’s neck.

Take a look at some of these startling statistics:

  • 10% of released balloons don’t burst, but instead slowly deflated and float back to earth’s surface as a whole.
  • 90% of floating marine debris has been estimated to be plastic or polystyrene (Styrofoam) items.
  • Shoreline and recreational activities are responsible for 54% of marine debris.
  • Marine debris has been documented to affect 267 species worldwide, with marine debris entanglements documented for 135 species.

            With Memorial Day, graduations, Fourth of July, summer BBQs, and Father’s day all around the corner, keep in mind that your party decorations travel farther than your backyard. Let the patriotic plates and Springsteen music overshadow your lack of balloons and set an example for friends and family for future celebrations.