Nova Scotia

'Record year' for balloon garbage in the Bay of Fundy

One whale watch tour operator says balloons are "everywhere this summer" in the waters between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, garbage that's a potentially deadly attraction for wildlife.

'They're everywhere this summer. I really don't understand where they're all coming from'

Once colourful mylar balloons, like this one found drifting in the waters off the U.K., turn transparent in water and look convincingly like jellyfish to turtles and birds. (Steve Trewhella/balloonsblow.org)

People who work in the Bay of Fundy say the waters between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are teeming with discarded balloons this year, garbage that's a potentially deadly attraction for wildlife.

One whale-watch tour operator said he's seen more balloons in the Bay of Fundy this year than in the last 30 years, combined.

"This has been a record year. I've never seen so many birthday balloons floating around the ocean, ever," Tom Goodwin, a marine biologist and captain at Ocean Explorations Whale Cruises in Tiverton, N.S., told CBC's Information Morning.

"They're everywhere this summer. I really don't understand where they're all coming from."

Balloon threats

For years, environmental advocates have spoken out about the threats posed by helium balloons released — either intentionally in celebration or unintentionally — that end up as pollution enticing to wildlife.

This endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle was rescued off the coast of Florida in 2015. Rescuers were able to remove the balloon from the turtle's digestive tract. (Blair Witherington/seaturtle.org)

Of particular concern to wildlife are mylar balloons. The shiny, often colourful balloons quickly fade and turn transparent in water, said Laurie Merison, executive director of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station in New Brunswick.

"And it will actually come off enough that it will look like a clear jelly[fish] at the surface and they are mistaken for something that's edible and they're eaten by sea turtles and by other marine organisms," she said.

"Then you end up with an object in the gut that doesn't break down so it actually blocks the digestive system and can cause death."

As for why so many balloons end up in the ocean, Merison said they go where the wind takes them.

"The prevailing winds will bring balloons from areas of population to the coast and then the coast, particularly the Bay of Fundy, tends to be cooler so they often start to descend and will end up in the water as they start to lose some of the helium," she said.

This guillemot was rescued off the coast of the U.K. with a balloon and ribbon tied tightly around its leg. (David Steely/balloonsblow.org)

Human-caused threats to wildlife are coming under greater scrutiny after eight critically endangered North Atlantic right whales were found dead in Canadian waters over the last two months.

Necropsies on the whales have revealed signs of chronic entanglement in fishing gear. Some suffered blunt trauma that may have been a result of collisions with vessels.

More balloon garbage after special events

Merison said she often sees an increase in balloon waste after special events. 

"Usually after an event — birthday, graduation or Fourth of July or Canada Day — they seem to be more prevalent. That's when people are really seeing these things, after company launches and things like that," she said. 

"You can spend your entire day picking up balloons."

Merison said even if they're not eaten, balloons are trash and just add to the mountain of garbage already polluting the world's oceans. 

For years, environmental advocates have spoken out about the threats posed by helium balloons released — either intentionally in celebration or unintentionally — that end up as pollution enticing to wildlife. (Steve Trewhella/balloonsblow.org)

Merison said keeping balloons inside is a "better scenario" but adds there are other reasons to forgo them. 

"We also have to appreciate that helium is in limited supply and we probably should be using it for better things like medical equipment, rather than for balloons and for our entertainment," she said. 

Liquid helium is used in cryogenics as well as to cool superconducting magnets, such as those in MRI scanners.

About the Author

Cassie Williams

Reporter/Editor

Seasick marine biologist, turned journalist. I live in Halifax. I can be reached at cassandra.williams@cbc.ca

With files from Information Morning