The Scary Truth About Party Balloons

Posted Thu, 10/31/2019 - 10:39

Guest Blog By: Laura Anthony, 2018 NOAA Hollings Scholar, Western Washington University

My high school graduation was anything but joyful as I begged my peers not to release the balloons they held. I’m Laura Anthony, otherwise known as the overenthusiastic marine biology student telling people not to use plastic cups at parties. This summer, I was a NOAA Hollings Scholar in the Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program assessing the impact of anthropogenic (human created) debris on deep-sea coral and sponge habitats.

To begin my project, I analyzed deep-sea video footage in the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico taken on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer expeditions with remotely operated vehicles (ROV). Being passionate about deep-sea coral and sponge habitats, I was excited to work on a project analyzing our impact on these distant ecosystems. I sifted through about 800 hours of video content tagged for anthropogenic material, typically finding debris such as derelict fishing gear. 

Then I saw it, a mylar balloon 1,400 meters under the sea, wrapped around a dead deep-sea coral. I documented the seemingly odd occurrence and continued reviewing the videos. But soon there was another balloon, and another, and then some balloon ribbons. In approximately half the dives from a single expedition, the Okeanos captured evidence of balloon or balloon remnants such as ribbons. Considering how little area each dive is able to cover, this could mean thousands of undiscovered balloons scattered across the deep sea. This video footage that explored deep-sea canyons was from the ROV Exploration of the Northeast U.S. Deepwater Canyons expedition conducted in 2013. As my research continued, I saw many pieces of debris but nothing struck me more than balloons. Three percent of Atlantic deep-sea debris items seen by the Okeanos Explorer in the last six years consisted of balloons, a very large percentage considering how far removed the deep-sea is from typical human activity.

A photo of a sandy bottom that is located deep in the ocean. There is a balloon ribbon wrapped around coral.
Balloon ribbon (depth of 1,104 m) seen by NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer on Dive 16 of ROV Exploration of the Northeast US Deepwater Canyons 2013 expedition (Photo: NOAA).

Though balloons appear to float into space, to be lost forever, they will always come back down. Balloon releases provide a brief moment of celebration, but the balloons can persist in environments such as the deep sea for years or centuries before becoming microplastics, an increasing threat to these habitats. Sometimes they’ll continue to sink thousands of meters under the ocean to pollute habitats such as deep-sea coral and sponge grounds that most people don’t even know exist. Once in the ocean, they can also become yet another hazard for marine wildlife. Balloons can be mistaken for food, and if eaten and ingested, can lead to a loss of nutrition, internal injury, starvation, and death. 

There is a simple solution to this daunting pollutant - ending balloon releases. Luckily, balloons and other types of marine debris are completely preventable. There are many decoration alternatives to balloons and if you do use balloons, keep them inside and make sure there is a weight attached to prevent accidental releases.The Joyful Send-off Campaign, a partnership with the Coastal States Stewardship Foundation, aims to educate people who may be considering balloon releases as part of a celebration. Though many deep-sea corals are thousands of years old, they hardly need birthday balloons to help them celebrate!

The Scary Truth About Party Balloons

Posted Thu, 10/31/2019 - 10:39

For citation purposes, unless otherwise noted, this article was authored by the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

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Joseph E. Ford

Thu, 10/31/2019 - 12:02

I have lived in south Mississippi most of my life and have enjoyed the Gulf of Mexico in many ways, whether it be in the water, on the beach, or enjoying the abundance of seafood harvested from the gulf. I have seen first hand the devastation caused by mankind in the form of debris and garbage of every kind imaginable that has found its way into the Gulf of Mexico. As a former employee of DHS-FEMA and going through Hurricane Katrina approximately 100 miles north of the gulf coast, then working on the Response and Recovery we saw things that will never be forgotten.

The initial storm surge from Katrina brought a deluge of plastic garbage and debris that filtered through the trees and their branches as the surge moved inland. This debris was highly visible for over one year from the incident and it was just a small perspective on the volume of plastic debris in our oceans that the marine / aquatic life has to contend with in their natural habitat.

The sight of the plastic bags, garbage cans, and other household items hanging from the many trees along the gulf made me think that the Gulf was nauseated from the amount of debris and just had to throw it up to get it out of its system.

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Tue, 02/01/2022 - 07:08

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