What Goes Up Must Come Down


by Lance Ferris


The balloon (inset) was removed from inside the Giant Petrel











Below, is the SAME balloon, which was removed from the Giant Petrel in May 2006 - 10 MONTHS LATER.
(Image dated 25 March 2007)










This helium balloon travelled 660km
before it deflated and came to land










an example of the host of different types of pollutants,
ingested by ONE 38 cm Green sea turtle.

Party balloons are a child’s delight, especially if the balloon is filled with helium, and floats magically in the air.

Although the mass releases of helium balloons are illegal in NSW, the occasional party balloon slips through the fingers and drifts off to places unknown. We regularly pick balloons, scattered along the beaches, to avoid them being swallowed by turtles and seabirds.

On Tuesday, June Harris, a local, avid birdo noticed a Giant Petrel wallowing helplessly in the surf at Shelley Beach. ASR Volunteers Rod and Angie were soon on the scene and retrieved the bird from the water. A ribbon was hanging from the bird’s beak and we had some serious fears that a balloon was lodged in its intestines.

For an hour we struggled with the ribbon, but try as we may, the item would not dislodge. In desperation, we dosed the bird with olive oil, to lubricate the system. A few minutes later, 30 cm of ribbon was hauled from the bird’s innards, with an orange balloon attached. The bird was starving, and would have died in a matter of days. Within the hour of removing the balloon, the bird was feasting on fresh fish at our WildlifeLink Centre.

The New South Wales government has banned mass releases of helium balloons. Whilst these releases continue in many parts of the world, considerable information from overseas sources continues to support the fact that marine creatures are at risk from swallowing these balloons.

Whether the balloon is attached to a string or not, if it is filled with helium, it will float, and eventually come down still presenting a choking hazard or digestion hazard for marine turtles and many other species.

Recently, a Northern Giant Petrel, (a very large pelagic seabird), now listed as an endangered species, was presented with a ribbon hanging from its beak. The big bird was near death. Suspecting the ribbon was attached to a balloon, volunteers were initially unsuccessful in removing the balloon, when the ribbon broke.

However, after rejoining the ribbon, and tubing some paraffin oil into the bird, the orange balloon was removed from the intestines of the bird. Within several minutes of the operation, the bird consumed almost one kilogram of fish, and was eventually released. Contrary to some beliefs, wildlife rescuers and rehabilitators, such as Australian Seabird Rescue achieve an extremely high success rate in the successful release of over 70 species of seabirds, and five species of marine turtles.

As an experiment, the deflated balloon was towed around the bird’s pool, to determine the bird’s reaction. The Petrel was intent on chasing the balloon and volunteers had to be intensely alert, in order that the bird did not swallow the balloon, again. It has been said, that helium-filled balloons rise to a height where they ‘freeze to a state of brittle fracture’ and ‘burst into small pieces, whereupon the flutter harmlessly to earth’.

We placed several latex balloons, from various manufacturers, into a commercial freezer, which was operating at 50 degs Celsius BELOW ZERO. Despite two months in this sub-zero environment, the balloons retained their shape, albeit partially deflated. After the period of two months, volunteers entered the freezer, and waited until the temperature had returned to 50 degs below zero. Even at that temperature, the balloons were still pliable and had not reached a state of ‘brittle fracture’.

On 15 August 2007, several balloons were found tied together on South Ballina beach, New South Wales, Australia. One of the balloons originated from Mingara Recreation Club on the Central Coast of New South Wales, 660km south of Ballina. After informing Mingara of the find, the Club explained helium balloons are used internally for promotional activities, however balloons are given to members for their children if requested.

Previously unaware of the impacts of helium balloons, the Club is now implementing a safe use policy for balloons and educating their staff on the impact of helium balloons on the environment. Whilst these few balloons were accidentally released, it demonstrated the distance some of these balloons can travel.

The balloons had not only travelled 660 kilometres, but they had not ‘fractured into small harmless pieces’ (as suggested by the balloon companies).

Ironically, even if balloons did fracture into small pieces, according to our studies and autopsies of marine turtles, each piece of balloon would present a significant threat to small, hatchling turtles. All species of seaturtles in Australian waters are considered endangered, threatened or vulnerable. According to Dr Colin Limpus of the Environmental Protection Agency of Queensland, the statistics indicate that only 1-in-1000 seaturtles survives to maturity!

Agreed, latex is biodegradable. However, there are many marine creatures constantly searching for food sources. A floating balloon, or a piece thereof, represents a food source, whether it is biodegradable, deflated, blue, green, orange, or in small, so-called ‘harmless’ pieces… and continues to be a significant threat to our precious wildlife, irrespective of the size, colour, texture or shape of the pollutant.

In worldwide studies, (U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife, UK Marine Conservation Society) it is estimated that a latex balloon may take as long as 12 months to biodegrade. Meanwhile, as they degrade, thousands more are released into the environment at balloon releases… to ‘top up’ the constant threat to our wildlife.

In early 2007, Kathy Townsend PhD, of Queensland University, found balloons in the stomach of a dead sea turtle.

Dumping of balloons into the environment, whether it is on the ground or in the air, is not only littering, but presents a hazard to marine creatures who mistake these items for food.

The ‘jet-stream’ air-flow across the continent is from west to east. Helium balloons are thus likely to reach the height of the jet-stream, and eventually find their way into the ocean.

Have you ever been to a party where helium balloons were floating around the room? And for those who stayed late, they would have noticed that these balloons slowly drifted to the floor.

There is a simple explanation; Helium is an expensive gas. Its atomic structure is very small, in fact the second smallest atom in the world. A balloon is filled with what is called ‘balloon gas’ – a mixture of ordinary air and helium – just enough to float the balloon. The Helium is small enough, over a time, to pass through the wall of the balloon, thus allowing the balloon to descend.

If one was to dump 1000 balloons on the roadway, the action would incur a penalty for littering. What gives us the right to dump many thousands of balloons in the ocean? That is very likely where helium filled balloons will end up.

EVERY PERSON involved in the release of helium balloons creates a real threat to many endangered species of marine creatures.

At the closing ceremony of the Paralympics (2000), thousands of balloons were used in the display. Not one was filled with helium, and not one ended up in the ocean. There are many ways to celebrate with balloons, without recklessly endangering our wildlife.

Ask the children this: “Would you like a balloon to take home… or would you rather we just throw them away into the ocean?”

What goes up, DOES come down!

We are losing our endangered species.

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