A wildlife specialist is calling for an end to memorial balloon releases after a seal died in North Wales when it's flippers were bound together by plastic string.
Marine medic Gem Simmons witnessed the death of the seal pup and said that "killing something isn't a good way to remember a relative’s legacy".
Balloon releases are common as an act of remembrance but campaigners say they can harm wildlife and leave plastic and rubber in the environment for years to come.
Gem Simmons, who runs North Wales Seal Research Organisation, saw first-hand the effects that balloon waste can cause.
After seeing a seal pup in distress on a North Wales coast Gem went over to try and help.
She said: "Even from a distance I could see the seal wasn’t well.
"I would have expected it to be lifting its head at least, but it wasn’t.
"Seeing it was entangled with something, I went to help. Both its flippers were pinned to its body by plastic balloon ribbon. I managed to pull it apart but it was hard to do."
The relief of freeing the seal from the ribbon quickly turned into sadness for Gem after the young pup failed to make a recovery.
Gem said: "When the seal was freed, it appeared paralysed from the neck down. But it was still breathing and seemed happier.
"However, that evening, as we waited for the vet, it died. There was no postmortem, so we don’t know exactly what caused its death, but entanglement was certainly a factor."
She added that during a 14-year career as a marine medic it's the first rescue that has really affected her, leading her to take a few months out to recover.
A year after the incident, and following the discovery of more balloon victims, Gem’s online research revealed three memorial balloon releases were planned in North Wales this weekend.
Gem contacted local councillors in the hope they would intervene: as far as she knows, they still went ahead.
"That’s hundreds of balloons that will inevitably end up impacting wildlife," said the marine biologist.
"There’s a certain hypocrisy involved: killing something isn’t a good way to remember a relative’s legacy.
"It’s a delicate issue as people are grieving and I have no wish to make things worse. All I’m hoping to do is to raise awareness. It’s a question of re-education: releasing balloons is a nice way of remembering people but what goes up must come down.
“Once you release these balloons, you have no control over where they end up. Those involved would often be horrified about dropping litter on the ground, but don’t think twice about releasing litter into the sky."
Batches of 60 memorial balloons can be bought on Amazon and other sites for as little as £7.99. Particles from balloons made of plastic, rubber or foil can remain in the environment for decades.
A Senedd petition calling for balloon releases to be banned has so far collected 676 signatures.
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