Today's Catch: Balloon Marine Debris

Guest blogger Melissa Riche is a PR consultant and interior designer. She recounts a pleasant weekend sail with friends that becomes a mission — and a lesson in why decorative balloons are an environmental disaster.

On a recent Sunday, the conditions didn’t look promising for a great sail: grey skies, the threat of rain, and barely a breeze indicated that we wouldn’t be gliding along at the usual 10-12 knots.  Out past the end of the Marina del Rey tidal break, our predictions came true, but the five of us were happy to be out on the water to blow away the week’s cobwebs. 

Dawdling along at 4 knots on a calm sea, Kelly saw her first balloon. “Steve!” she cried to her husband, “we have to go pick it up.” Steve turned on the motor to make navigating easier and Kelly leaned over the side with a gaffer hook to grab the balloon.  Wrapping the balloon’s long string around the hook took several attempts, but she managed to haul it in and proudly showed off her catch to the rest of the crew.  It was a Stars and Stripes July 4th Mylar special.

Little did we know, this was about to be the theme of the afternoon.  During the next couple of hours, while Steve and Kelly, Jim, Tracy and I meandered around the bay with no purpose other than a relaxing Sunday sail, we hauled in 34 balloons.  We weren’t even looking for them.  We would be sitting chatting, telling stories, eating our lunch and just having a good time when someone would shout out “balloon!”

Photo by Stephen Graziano

We took turns bringing them in. Sometimes we missed the first pass because the balloon strings would slip through the hook, so Jim, my husband and my old sailing pal Tracy took to bending over the side of the boat, arms outstretched, to grab the odd ones. Two or more tied together made hooking them much easier.  We even got in some ‘man overboard’ sailing practice to pick up a couple of balloons we’d missed first time.

Later on, as we headed back, we saw a dark shadow bobbing some distance away.  “What’s that over there?  Is it a small boat?  Is there someone in trouble?” I wondered.   We headed towards the mystery silhouette – about 200 yards away but big enough for us to see a strange outline.  As we got closer Jim’s 20/10 eyesight identified ‘more balloons’ and we all laughed and groaned in disbelief.  How could there be so many balloons out on the water?  Kelly and Stephen who sail in the bay at least twice a month said they’d never picked up more than one or two balloons in the water on any one sail.  This time it was a group of 8 purple Mylar balloons.  Tracy and I landed the catch of the day!

“OK, that’s enough,” we declared.  But in fact just as we landed the big catch, we saw another balloon about 50 yards away so we picked that one up too.  And on the way back, as the wind dropped some more and the sea became glass-like, we saw balloons everywhere.  Groups of yellow and pink, yellow and white, single green single blue, ‘Hello Kitty’ birthday balloons, a mylar butterfly and more.

Back on the dock, we spread them out and counted them — 34 balloons altogether.

The balloon catching had made for a really fun sail on an otherwise unexciting weather day, but the downside of our enjoyment was clear to all of us.  If we could pick up 34 balloons in one day without even trying, how many more ended up in the bottom of the ocean, threatening marine life with plastic and likely toxins from the balloons’ graphic designs– which came off in our hands when we pulled them in – not too mention entanglement from the long strings.

For years I’ve been a supporter of banning plastic bags (we banned them in England long ago), and so I was delighted to support both Environment California and Heal the Bay in their work to encourage plastic bag bans and even more thrilled when cities throughout California started to institute the bans.

But balloons. We’ve all bought them for friends and family special occasions.  They’re fun, they’re decorative – and then what happens to them?  When I see events marking a launch with a balloon release, I wonder where the balloons end up.  When you see all those balloons blowing in the wind at car dealerships – where do they go?  All those families celebrating birthdays on the beaches – the wind catches the balloon and away it goes.

Our poor Santa Monica Bay suffers so many indignities.  Perhaps in addition to banning plastic bags, we should at least start a discussion about balloons.

At the very least, I encourage everyone who sails in the bay to do as we did, and pick up balloons when they see them.

Pictured above: The author, kneeling on the dock, holds a sampling of the balloons the crew retrieved from the bay. (Photo by Stephen Graziano)