Rafee'ah Ismail is part of the Two Oceans Aquarium Puppet Stories team. 

Rafee’ah Ismail

On a breezy afternoon my young family and I enjoyed a ball game and a fun walk on the beach. A few minutes into our games I noticed a group of cheery people carrying a bunch of balloons to the shore. They were fervently trying to untangle the ribbons attached to their balloons. It was clear that they were about to let the balloons go and, as an employee of the Two Oceans Aquarium, conservation is a priority for me and therefore I could not allow this to happen.

You may ask: how are balloons associated with conservation? Evidently, more than the general public understands. Many people still mark celebrations by releasing balloons. This event has been around for decades, but it has many negative consequences.

A balloon takes a seemingly endless float up into the highest skies, eventually pops and comes back down, landing either in the ocean or on terrain. Once in the ocean, this popped balloon resembles a jellyfish or an anemone, which a sea animal mistakes for food. Once indigested, the balloon makes this animal very sick, and the animal often dies from to the damage done by the balloon. The string or chord that usually accompanies the balloon is also often found wrapped around the beak of a bird or the neck of a seal.

Having said this, it’s not enough that we verbally stress the importance of disposing of balloons correctly, or of actually banning them altogether.

As it happens, Bob the Green Sea Turtle is currently rehabilitating at the Two Oceans Aquarium after ingesting balloons and other plastic items. Bob has become our ambassador for showing just how dangerous balloons are. In addition to Bob, we have rehabilitated more than 200 juvenile loggerhead turtles this year alone. Sadly, 24 died and autopsies showed that they had plastic bits in their tiny bodies.

Loggerhead hatchlings drift with the ocean currents. They mistake plastic for food. This one had half a gram of plastic in its body. Unfortunately, it did not survive. Photo by Renée Leeuwner

All of this was going through my mind as I observed the group with the balloons. I did not want to upset anyone so I was hesitant to approach them, but eventually I mustered up the courage, addressed them politely and briefly explained the consequences of releasing balloons. They were quite let down but also very accommodating and left the beach without executing their plan. Of course I felt awful ruining their celebrations but I realised that they were sacrificing a moment of joy for a lifetime of safety for our animal friends. Had I not confronted the situation I would have walked away guilty of contradicting myself.

Through Puppet Stories, the Two Oceans Aquarium’s mobile puppet shows, Marguerite Venter and I are educating thousands of young school students about conservation and caring for the environment, focusing on plastic bags and balloon waste.

We are currently showcasing the I Love Turtles puppet show and storybooks at various schools. I Love Turtles features the juvenile turtle Hatch who mistakes a balloon for an anemone. The harsh reality is that this is not just a story – it happens to many turtles and other sea animals, as well as those on land.

Bob the Turtle’s story has touched so many individuals, the teachers and scholars alike, at the schools we have visited. They sympathise with Bob and understand the negative effects of balloons, and so many teachers have climbed on board with us and decided to stop releasing balloons, because balloons really do blow.

Much to our dismay, many schools and other institutions are still releasing balloons and are unaware of the consequences. So we are happy to visit schools and illustrate our environmental messages through fun and interactive puppet shows. Hopefully many will take cognisance of the messages that we are conveying.

As one of our feature characters, Beauty, says: ''You don’t need balloons to have fun.”

If you would like to make a booking with us to visit your school please call Marguerite or Rafee'ah on 021 418 3823 or email Puppetbooks@aquarium.co.za.

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