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Party Balloon Leads to Whale Death

November 13, 2023

A mylar balloon caused the death of a Gervais’ beaked whale calf that stranded off the coast of North Carolina.

A small dead whale lays on its side on the water's edge at a beach. Gervais’ beaked whale on the beach at Emerald Isle in North Carolina. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Beachgoers reported seeing a whale in shallow water when the young female washed up along Emerald Isle. Biologists with the North Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network responded and confirmed the whale’s death. Then, they quickly mobilized to conduct a necropsy (animal autopsy) to determine why she stranded and died. 

Throughout the examination all appeared normal, until the team got into the animal’s stomach. Biologists discovered milk, indicating the young calf was still nursing. Further examination of the stomach revealed a crumpled mylar balloon, which had obstructed the whale’s ability to properly digest food, leading to starvation. 

Balloon in dead Gervais' beaked whale
Balloon in dead Gervais' beaked whale

Gervais’ beaked whales are deep-diving animals and there is little known about the abundance of the species. They are found worldwide and most commonly off the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. 

While balloons can be a fun way to celebrate important life events, they can also be deadly if they get loose or are not disposed of properly.  Instead of celebrating a milestone or memorializing a loved one by releasing balloons,consider biodegradable options, which are less harmful to marine life.

An operation like this one requires many trained responders and experts. Marine mammal scientists, veterinarians, students and staff participated in this effort from:

  • North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries
  • North Carolina State University Center for Marine Sciences and Technology
  • North Carolina Aquarium
  • University of North Carolina Wilmington
  • Duke University Marine Laboratory
  • University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences
  • North Carolina Maritime Museum
  • Bonehenge Whale Center
  • Emerald Isle Public Works
  • Emerald Isle Police Department

Last updated by Southeast Regional Office on November 13, 2023