During the summer of 2011 I was fortunate enough to spend three months as an endangered shorebird intern at Chincoteague NWR on Assateague Island in VA. As a co-creator of Balloons Blow I was well aware of the affect balloons have on the environment and particularly our oceans and shorelines. Knowing that I was going to be working on the beach every day, I was prepared to pick up whatever balloons I saw.
I was not prepared for the amount of balloons that washed up onto Assateague Island. After the third day there, I realized that many more balloons washed up on this island than the barrier island in Florida I grew up cleaning.
Fortunately I was surrounded by people that cared, people that understood the importance of a healthy environment and wildlife. My awesome supervisor, Janelle, warned me by my third day that I would not be able to pick up every balloon I saw because I would end up spending the whole day collecting balloons. I understood I needed to focus on work but I was still determined to gather every balloon I saw. This notion I had did not last for long. As the days passed I realized that Janelle was right, the amount of balloons on the island was overwhelming and there was no way I would be able to get every single one of them.
It was depressing to see the amount of new balloons that washed ashore every day. They just added to the amount that had already been there for years. Again, the people I was surrounded by improved my moral. My co-interns and supervisor were all very supportive and we did gather balloons and other litter that we walked passed; we were there to protect the wildlife.
Within my first week, while having lunch with refuge staff, I was able to have a conversation with the Refuge Manager, Lou Hinds, about balloon litter. I was delighted to hear he shared my concerns! From the interns to the manager, everyone that surrounded me supported my cause! It was comforting to be with people that cared like I did and took action for what they believed in.
That summer I counted every balloon that I gathered. On one particular day I decided to do a survey. While we were driving about 7 miles north on the beach to the VA/MD state line I counted every piece of litter I was able to see. The results were astounding. I counted 116 balloons and only 7 other types of litter (i.e. plastic bottles, styrofoam, etc.) this means for every 1 piece of other litter type there were 16 balloons! This was shocking to me as I was use to finding many more types of different debris (mostly plastics) than balloons. And further I was used to finding more latex balloons than mylar balloons, but on this island the mylar far outnumbered the latex. And mylar balloons take much longer to biodegrade. The total that I physically collected over the summer, after 68 days of work, was 503 balloons.
So why were there so many more balloons on Assateague Island in VA than Hutchinson Island in FL? The reason isn’t completely clear. My guess is the position of the ocean currents that surround the island. This may also be one of the reasons for the many marine mammal and sea turtle strandings that occur on Assateague Island. This still leaves me with the question of why so much balloon litter and so little plastic and other debris.
In Florida strong East winds from the Atlantic will bring large amounts of flotsam and jetsam to accumulate on the beaches. Without these winds there may be little to no debris at all. However, on Assateague Island, the wind did not seem to make a difference on the amount of balloons and debris that floated onto shore.
My summer at Chincoteague NWR was an amazing experience. I was able to work to protect wildlife with people who shared my passion. But, I will never forget the many balloons that I witnessed being washed ashore by the rising tide. It made me think of the Piping Plover chicks we were studying, with their little skinny legs that could so easily get entangled in ribbon. It made me think of the many sea turtles that made their way to the island, whether to lay eggs or rest in peace on the shore after mysteriously dying. It made me think of all of the wildlife that had come into contact with the balloons and how many more will die from them.
My internship allowed me to gain invaluable experience but it also gave me more motivation to fight against balloon releases. When people have respect for the life we share this planet with, I believe they will be more likely to change their ways, no matter how ‘harmless’ it may seem.
The people I met at Chincoteague NWR gave me hope for our future. I was even able to write in the fall issue of the local paper, ‘The Piping Plover’, an article about littering and balloons in particularly. I am grateful for being able to intern with such wonderful people surrounded by such amazing wildlife!