JUNO BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A badly injured sea turtle that underwent a year of rehabilitation and innovative surgeries was released Wednesday by caretakers hoping he finds a mate and helps his endangered species prosper.
Andre, as the 177-pound green sea turtle is known, crawled into the water and swam out of sight before a crowd of hundreds of raucous supporters. He was near death when he was found split open and stranded last year.
"He has overcome obstacles, predators, food scarcities, cold winters — any number of things that may have ended his life — and he has survived," said Dr. Nancy Mettee, a veterinarian at Loggerhead Marinelife Center who cared for Andre. "He's really a miracle turtle."
When Andre was found stranded on a sandbar on June 15, 2010, he had gaping holes in his shell, the result of two apparent boat strikes. More than three pounds of sand were inside him, along with at least a couple of crabs, a raging infection and a collapsed lung. His spinal cord was exposed, pneumonia was plaguing him and death seemed certain.
Any one of those injuries could have killed him, but his flippers were working and his neurological function appeared normal. So after beachgoers pulled him ashore on a boogie board, veterinarians began what became a yearlong effort to save him.
To help remove fluid and other materials and close his wounds, doctors used a vacuum therapy system. To help close gashes in the shell, Dr. Alberto Vargas, a local orthodontist, installed braces similar to those used on humans. And to fill in the gaping holes, doctors employed a procedure typically used to help regrow breast tissue in mastectomy patients and abdominal tissue in hernia patients.
All are believed to be animal firsts, and Andre's supporters say the herculean effort was worth it.
Green sea turtles have persisted since prehistoric times, but are endangered today. Only a small fraction of hatchlings survive and even fewer go on to reach adulthood and reproduce.
Andre is believed to be about 25 years old. The hope is that he will swim off, mate often and help his species survive.
"Go out and live long and prosper and have lots of babies," said Aaron Lichtig, a 40-year-old science teacher who was among those who first spotted the turtle and brought him to shore.
On Wednesday, Lichtig was among hundreds cheering the turtle on as he was loaded into an all-terrain vehicle, driven to the beach, set unto the sand and then turned loose to amble into the Atlantic. He hesitated at first, but was helped closer to the water by volunteers.
A moment later, he disappeared below the surface, only to pop his head up a few more times, delighting the crowd.
"It's just an inspiration," said one volunteer, 17-year-old Kelly Griffith, who wiped tears from her eyes. "Every turtle is special, but he captures hearts."
Mettee could not bring herself to attend Andre's release, calling it a bittersweet moment. She knows he could have been kept safe under her care and she fears what he could face in the wild, yet she knows he had to be set free. But after all these months of caring for him, she grew to know his every quirk, including the way he'd crane his neck to look when she was working on him.
"If it's possible that an animal could know that we were trying to help I think that he did," she said.
Andre's survival has inspired fans across the world who heard his story or watched his round-the-clock webcam. More than 200 people from 25 different states and a handful of foreign countries sent in checks to be honorary adoptive parents. Children flooded him with mail, often addressed simply to "Andre the Turtle."
The cards and notes were tacked by the dozens to a wall alongside an outdoor grouping of turtle pools at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center, where some 225,000 visitors come each year.
One child's simple words summed up the thoughts of many who came to wish the turtle well: "Good luck, have a safe trip."