This summer I’ve worked as a ranger for the Trustees of the Reservations at Norton Point Beach — a three-mile isthmus that runs from South Beach to Wasque Point on Chappaquiddick. It’s a bucket list job. Instead of longingly gazing out an office window, I’m outdoors every day, soaking in the glorious Vineyard summer, storing up on Vitamin D for the winter and working at one of my favorite places on the planet.

I get to help critters and people in a variety of ways and to help steward precious tracts of land that have been preserved for posterity. These beaches, the sky above and the surrounding waters are home to a dazzling fecundity of flora and fauna — which makes the unrelenting stream of manmade detritus, particularly balloons, that washes ashore all the more infuriating.

Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed how many balloons invade our shores every day. They arrive silent and stealthy, in various states of decay, vestiges of celebrations past — birthdays, graduations, grand openings — that were let fly presumably to embody the elation of the occasion.

“I hesitate to use the word epidemic but over the past 25 years, the number of Mylar balloons on our beaches has gone up dramatically,” Chris Kennedy, Islands director for the Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) said. “It’s particularly bad from late spring to early fall when the prevailing winds are from the southwest, but they wash up every day, year round.”

Our fair Island is ideally situated to snag floating flotsam from all over the East Coast. It’s propelled by the Gulf Stream and the prevailing winds before heading out to sea, possibly to the North Atlantic Garbage Patch. (The Great Pacific Garbage Patch gets all the press but the North Atlantic Garbage Patch was first documented in the early 1970s). Since June 1, I’ve picked up close to 400 balloons. This balloon tally is just my own. I work five days a week, I’m one of a crew of six and I patrol only three of the 125 miles of Martha’s Vineyard coastline. One morning after three days of steady southwest gales, I picked up 57 mylar balloons and 10 latex balloons, all with indestructible ribbon attached. One balloon was from a realtor in Staten Island (309 miles), another was from the Grey Ghosts of Westford Academy (126 miles). Islanders are also culpable — I picked up a number of sparkling purple balloons in the days after high school graduation.

The ribbons attached to these balloons have the half-life of Plutonium — they never show signs of decay. Balloons floating in the water with their trailing ribbons resemble a jellyfish meal to leatherback turtles. A simple Google search will yield a distressing array of images of wildlife that have perished from ingesting or becoming entangled with balloons and their ribbons.

Some 90 per cent of the balloons I’ve collected are mylar balloons. Mylar — the brand name for biaxially-oriented polyethylene terephthalate — does not biodegrade. It is so durable that in the early 1960s, NASA launched a 100-foot mylar balloon into space to function as our country’s first communications satellite, enabling engineers to bounce a radio signals from one ground station to another.

Washashore mylar balloons are still inflated to some degree. Some have been at sea so long the metallic coating has been washed away. This coating always blackens my hands and requires extensive scrubbing to remove it. I’m guessing can’t be good for the ocean and its inhabitants.

Balloons are not the only manmade debris I pick up on a daily basis. Water bottles usually number half again as many as the number of balloons. Gatorade bottles, thicker than water bottles, always await. 

I can also count on finding blue rubber gloves and empty half gallon jugs of Clorox used by trawler crews. 

Pieces of styrofoam (polystyrene) are ubiquitous. Every piece of styrofoam I pick up — takeout food containers, meat packing trays, egg packaging — have sharp triangular perforations of fish bites. Undoubtedly some were made by the bluefish that we catch on Chappy shores and serve to our family and friends.

A particular head scratcher is poop bags, left behind by people who had the wherewithal to pick up their dog’s feces, then left it, and the plastic bag, on the beach. Sometimes dogs are smarter than their owners.

The news from Norton Point isn’t all bad. On a weekend day in July and August, we average over 250 cars and trucks, all loaded with picnic supplies and many packed tighter than clown cars. There could easily be over 1,000 beachgoers.  Yet they leave little behind. The vast majority have been conscientious about taking their trash with them. (One notable exception, the annual Soul Patrol July 4 gathering that left behind a mountain of trash — organizers, you can do better.)

Another encouraging sign: I rarely find single use plastic shopping bags. Chris Kennedy believes this is a direct result of the successful campaign by the Vineyard Conservation Society to ban them on Martha’s Vineyard. “Plastic shopping bags used to be the national bird of Martha’s Vineyard,” he joked. “There has been a dramatic decrease since the ban.”

Sometimes celebratory traditions run their course. Throwing rice at weddings, shooting bullets into the sky on New Year’s and sacrificing humans on the Summer Solstice have all fallen out of fashion for good reason. Many of the balloons I gather are from childrens’ birthday celebrations. Do we want to pass this toxic tradition to future generations?

Visitors, when you return home, please spread the word. Next summer, when you’re soaking in the sun on Vineyard shores, that dead turtle, or fish or bird that washes up beside you could be a casualty of a celebration you attended.

Barry Stringfellow is a freelance writer who lives in Edgartown. An earlier version of this essay was incomplete; it has been updated with the full version.