When helium balloons reach an altitude of about 3,000 feet, Nicole Crosby told Flagler County commissioners at a March 7 meeting, they burst. She held up a wooden board covered with shredded balloons.
"They explode in this pattern that perfectly resembles a jellyfish — the diet of sea turtles."
— NICOLE CROSBY
"They explode in this pattern that perfectly resembles a jellyfish — the diet of sea turtles," said Crosby, a St. Johns County resident who chairs that county's soil water conservation district and founded the organization NEST, which stands for Never Endanger Sea Turtles. "Experts have determined that balloons are the number one cause of death to seabirds of all marine debris, and the number three cause of death to sea turtles, all of which are either endangered or threatened."
In January, Flagler Beach banned balloon releases to protect sea turtles and other marine wildlife, and such bans have also been passed in St. Johns County and other coastal communities.
Crosby and local sea turtle patrol volunteers told county commissioners at the March 7 meeting that they want Flagler County to follow suit and ban balloon releases countywide.
Even people who aren't especially interested in marine wildlife, Crosby said, have reason to want balloon releases to end: Loose balloons can get entangled in power lines and cause outages, and, if they fall on farmland, can get sucked into hay balers and then be fed to cattle.
Hammock resident Julie Buffington covers about 10 miles of the beach as a new turtle patrol volunteer, and noticed during training that senior volunteers picked up any balloons they came across on patrol.
The other volunteers explained how dangerous balloons are to sea turtles that mistake them for jellyfish and eat them.
"It becomes entangled in their digestive tract, and the sea turtles die a languishing death," she said.
Buffington held up a balloon ribbon.
"This is 7 foot of the ribbon that was pulled out of this turtle with a balloon attached," she said. "Very easy to avoid this by passing a public education campaign and this type of ordinance."
Sea turtles aren't the only marine wildlife affected.
Buffington is also a member of the local marine mammal rescue team, which this year found a 400-pound dolphin believed to have died from a stomach blockage, she said. Birds also get tangled in balloons' strings, she said, and balloon pieces that fall into families' yards can be picked up and swallowed by young children.
Turtle patrol volunteer Barbara Zimmermann patrols 7 miles in Flagler Beach. Whenever she goes to the beach, she carries a tote bag to pick up balloons and other debris that could harm wildlife. Last November, she conducted a test, seeing how many balloon pieces she could pick up over 2 miles of beach over seven days. She ended up with more than 100 pieces.
As a retired air traffic controller and an NTSB aviation accident investigator, Zimmermann is also familiar with another problem with loose balloons: They pose a risk to aviation.
"They can be extremely difficult to spot from the cockpit, and it can be challenging for a pilot to avoid these free-floating objects that can change direction in any instant," she said. "Balloons can be ingested into the aircraft's engine, restrict airflow and cause the plane to lose power."
She cited crashes traced to balloons: In 1993, a bundle of balloons caused a private twin engine plane to crash in California. That crash killed he pilot and ignited a 50-acre wildfire.
In January 2018, a bundle of balloons almost caused a crash with a business jet taking off from London, and in November 2021, a Boeing 737 reported a near-miss with balloons at 7,000 feet in England, she said.
"I mention this because we live within a very active commercial and recreational flying area," she said. "The release of balloons in our area has the possibility of causing flight risks to pilots and the surrounding community — a risk that can be easily avoided."
County commissioners Greg Hansen, Joe Mullins and Andy Dance asked the county administrator to look into drafting a potential ordinance banning balloon releases.