WEST ORANGE — On the way into Sea Turtle Recovery, you're greeted by an alarming statistic: Only 1 in 10,000 sea turtle hatchlings will survive to adulthood.

There are five species of sea turtles found in the Atlantic Ocean, and all five are either endangered or threatened.

To keep the sea turtle population from disappearing completely, the nonprofit inside Turtle Back Zoo is taking in the sick and injured, nursing them back to health, then releasing them back into the wild.

"What we are is a long-term hospital," co-executive officer Brandi Biehl told the Townsquare News Network. "They can be here for just a couple months or they could be here for years, depending on their injuries."

The current patient count is 10 — all Kemp's ridley sea turtles that failed to migrate south in time, got too cold and washed ashore.

"Cold-stunned" sea turtles need a reboot, Biehl explained. Many have not eaten due to their condition, so Biehl and her partner Bill Deerr gradually build up their appetites. All the while, they're watching the turtles' organs and vital signs, making sure pneumonia doesn't set in.

According to Deerr, all the turtles they're currently caring for are juveniles in the age range of 2 to 8 years old.

"Full-grown, these Kemp's ridleys would be over 120 pounds or so, and about 2 feet long," Deerr said.

The hope is that Biehl and Deerr have these turtles back in the sea long before they reach that size.

At the end of February, the nonprofit performed its first release, driving a sea turtle down to St. Augustine, Florida, where the water is warm.

The two-person operation opened its doors in December 2016. The county helped with its start-up by providing a building, but it's independent from the zoo and must come up with its own funding for maintenance, food, medications and vet costs.

Running one round of blood work, Biehl said, comes with a price tag of $98. They also create their own sea salt for the turtles at about $10 per bag.

"Each animal’s life matters and so we hope the public continues to embrace us so we can continue taking more sea turtles that are sick or injured and save them and get them back in the wild," Biehl said.

 

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