ANNAPOLIS – Inky, a young pygmy sperm whale, was found on a New Jersey beach on Thanksgiving Day 1993.
She was rushed to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where 3 feet of plastic, including a large Mylar balloon, was found caught in her stomach. It took six endoscopies to remove it.
“She was all of a sudden a different whale,” said David Schofield, manager of the aquarium’s Ocean Health Initiative. She was nursed for six months and grew from an anemic 207 pounds to a healthy 323 pounds when she was released into the Gulf Stream.
Inky’s story prompted Delegate Barbara Frush, D-Prince George’s, to sponsor a ban on the intentional release of 20 or more balloons in the hope that such a trauma would not be repeated.
The little-noticed bill has won her unexpected popularity.
“A lot of people stop me and say, ‘You have that Inky bill,'” Frush said. More than 800 people, including dozens of schoolchildren, have written her in support of the bill, which would fine violators up to $500.
The 22 students in Glenn Pippen’s fifth-grade class at Riverside Elementary in Joppa were part of the letter writing campaign.
“I saw it as a writing assignment and an opportunity for kids to stretch a little bit,” Pippen said.
The class was in the middle of its persuasive writing section when Pippen heard about the bill and decided it was the perfect practice subject.
“They seem to understand that they have a connection (with lawmakers),” he said.
The connection was apparent when Frush, during the hearing on the bill, read aloud from some of the letters from Pippen’s class.
“Do you like animals?” one student wrote to Frush. “I do! But why do we put them in danger so much? I think that we should STOP polluting (sic) all the time.”
“If they keep on releasing massive balloon (sic) our environments will be bad,” wrote another.
Frush said she hopes the response she has received from kids will make an impression on the House Judiciary Committee.
“The kids are the ones that really make a big difference,” she said. “It’s wrong to kill marine life. Having a child say it to us reminds us.”
But supporters – including a surfer and car dealer – left nothing to chance. They brought videos and displayed marine skulls, skins and shells to bolster their case.
There was even a bit of irony – or crafty political theater.
Frush brought balloons as a birthday tribute for Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, but wryly explained proper balloon disposal: Pop them first, then toss them in the trash.
More than 265 species of birds, fish and other marine life can ingest debris like balloons, Schofield said. There are about 75 animals stranded on Maryland shores every year and only 25 of those are found alive, he said. About half are stranded because of human interference.
The Balloon Council, which discourages people from releasing Mylar balloons, disputes the claim that balloons are a serious threat to marine life and said no marine deaths can be directly attributed to balloon ingestion.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re picking on balloons when they’re other things found inside,” said Dale Florio, a spokesman for the industry group.
Schofield agreed latex balloons are biodegradable, but it takes them two to four years to do so, plenty of time to cause harm to marine life – like Inky.
“She would not be on the beach for any other reason,” he said. “She would have died had she not gotten medical attention.”