Wayfaring sea turtles survived cold; now pneumonia threatens

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In this Feb. 27, 2020 photo, Brandi Biehl, co-director of the Sea Turtle Recovery hospital inside the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, N.J. examines a sea turtle. Eleven of the dozen turtles being treated there survived being "cold-stunned" last November when temperatures abruptly plunged, shutting down their internal organs. But the animals still suffer from pneumonia, which remains a threat to their survival. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

WEST ORANGE, N.J. – A dozen sea turtles that nearly froze when they were too far north last fall as water temperatures abruptly plunged in New Jersey survived that ordeal but remain threatened by the pneumonia most of them developed afterward.

Sea Turtle Recovery, a nonprofit group operating out of the Turtle Back Zoo in northern New Jersey, got the turtles through their initial medical crisis, with two needing CPR.

But 11 of them went on to develop pneumonia, a common problem in turtles that survive so-called “cold-stunning” and one that could yet kill some of them. Bill Deerr and Brandi Biehl, who run the center, are determined not to let that happen.

“Their whole organ systems started to shut down due to the cold,” Deerr said. “It's really their fight at that point. If they make it through that first month, it's almost like they've decided they want to fight and to live.”

The turtles are being treated with medications, and their progress and conditions are checked daily in a hospital on the grounds of the turtle-themed zoo that is popular with children.

Ten of the 12 are green turtles, along with one loggerhead, and one endangered Kemp's Ridley turtle. The loggerhead, the largest of the group, was found floundering off Ocean City, New Jersey; the others were recovered from the bayside beaches of Long Beach Island in November.

Biehl and Deerr suspect climate change played a role in their becoming ill.

“Over the past few years, they've documented warmer waters traveling farther north along our coast, all the way up into New England, and with those warmer waters, it means the turtles will travel further in the summertime — and then they have further to migrate to keep up with those warmer waters back in the fall,” he said.