HELIUM balloons may look harmless but there's a pretty good chance the colourful pieces of plastic will end up in the ocean, and even in the stomachs of marine wildlife.

That's what happened to Gazza, a northern giant petrel currently being rehabilitated by Australian Seabird Rescue in Ballina.

Gazza was found two weeks ago on Tallow Beach at Byron Bay, exhausted and hungry.

Any giant petrel spotted on land is likely to be ill or injured, given the birds live on the ocean and only come ashore to breed.

Shortly after being taken into care, Gazza regurgitated two large pieces of orange balloon.

Australian Seabird Rescue general manager Kathrina Southwell said balloons being swallowed by marine life was a big issue.

In the 15 years she has been with the organisation, Ms Southwell said she had looked after at least four other birds and countless turtles who had ingested balloon plastic.

"The planet is covered in 71% ocean, so there's a 71% chance that balloons will end up in the ocean and marine wildlife will eat them," she said.

"It causes blockages in their stomachs, which makes them feel full and creates a gas which makes them sick."

DID YOU KNOW? Petrels like Gazza (pictured) are tube-nosed seabirds in the bird order Procellariiformes. Two have wound up at Australian Seabird Rescue, under the care of general manager Kathrina Southwell, after eating balloon plastic.
DID YOU KNOW? Petrels like Gazza (pictured) are tube-nosed seabirds in the bird order Procellariiformes. Two have wound up at Australian Seabird Rescue, under the care of general manager Kathrina Southwell, after eating balloon plastic. Marc Stapelberg

Ms Southwell said some people could be confused by the balloon labelling which said "biodegradable", however most balloon plastics took at least six months to biodegrade.

"That amount of time is enough time for any wildlife to actually mistake it for their food and eat it," she said.

Gazza is not the only marine animal currently in care, recovering from ingesting plastic.

Critically-endangered hawksbill sea turtles Penny and Olivia are also in care, after being found severally underweight and suffering from float syndrome.

Although difficult to ban balloons entirely, Ms Southwell said at the very least, helium balloons should be kept and thrown into the garbage after use.

"It is hard to say no balloons, but I think most kids, once they understand the damage, they probably won't want balloons," she said. "The best thing you can do for marine wildlife ... is tie it around their wrist and make sure it goes into a rubbish bin when it pops."

In 2005 a northern giant petrel was rescued from a local beach with a piece of string dangling from its mouth. When rescuers pulled on the string, a balloon came out. Fortunately, the bird was successfully rehabilitated and released.

In 2011 a critically-endangered hawksbill sea turtle was rescued from a beach in Kingscliff. It excreted three different colours of balloon before it died.



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