Andre the Giant Hero: A Lesson for the World from One Incredible Sea Turtle

 

Ground-breaking technology saves the life of an endangered sea turtle, an inspiring story with an important message for the world.

Photo credit: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

In June 2010, an endangered green sea turtle—soon to be known to the world as “Andre”—washed ashore near death. He was just one of Florida’s hundreds of sea turtles hit by boats each year. A team of dedicated people came to his rescue, giving him a chance that many turtles in his situation don’t have. Though filled with much grief and sorrow, Andre’s story is also extremely inspirational and is filled with passion, creativity, and hope.

Photo credit: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

 

The Tragedy

Between 1,500-1,800 sea turtles become stranded on Florida’s beaches each year. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC), about 100-300 of them have injuries resulting from collisions with boats and only a dismal 10%-20% of these animals are found alive. With those odds, and given his critical condition, it’s a miracle Andre had survived at all.

Photo credit: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

When he was discovered by beachgoers at Juno Beach, large areas of his shell had been broken off in the boat strike and roughly three pounds (1.4 kilograms) of sand weighed down on his exposed vital organs. His spine, also then vulnerable and visible through the gaping holes in his shell, had also been shattered. Infection was rampant throughout his delicate body and death seemed imminent.

Photo credit: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

If he hadn’t been found, Andre likely would’ve suffered a slow and agonizing death on that beach. Sadly, this is the fate met by 80%-90% of sea turtles that survive being run over by boats in this state. However, his swift rescue and the events that took place after yielded a drastically different outcome for this beautiful marine creature.

Photo credit: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

 

The Miracle

Andre was rushed to the Loggerhead Marinelife Centre (LMC), a nearby non-profit organization focused on ocean conservation and operating on three principles: research, education, and rehabilitation. The facility specializes in the rehabilitation of sick and injured sea turtles. There, a passionate, tenacious team led by wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Nancy Mettee, raced against the clock to save the reptile’s life.

Photo credit: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

After reaching out to a local hospital for guidance, they were soon put in touch with medical technologies and therapies group, Kinetic Concepts Inc. (KCI). The company is pioneering new methods and procedures for improving wound-healing in humans. KCI and Dr. Mettee and her team put their heads together to find a way to address Andre’s most urgent issues: clearing infection, restoring blood supply to his injuries, and stimulating the body’s repairing processes.

Photo credit: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

They decided to use something called the “Strattice Reconstructive Tissue Matrix”, an innovative technology produced by KCI that had never been used on a non-human animal. It serves as a sort of acellular skin scaffolding, providing structural support for the extensive injuries and simultaneously facilitating the body’s natural healing progressions.

Photo credit: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

Additionally, the team used KCI’s “V.A.C. Therapy”, another ground-breaking technology that was never intended for use on aquatic or marine animals. This approach uses negative pressure at the wound site to promote healing and was custom-fitted for Andre to improve the effectiveness of the Strattice device while underwater. Working in collaboration, these two methods ultimately saved the turtle’s life over the months that followed.

Photo credit: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

The next step in Andre’s recovery would require repairing his badly damaged shell. Using their creativity once again, the team realized they may be able to achieve this with the use of orthodontic equipment, as it allowed for tension on some areas and flexibility in others. With generous assistance from local orthodontist, Dr. Alberto Vargas, six of these devices were placed on Andre’s carapace in February 2011. Four of them pulled the shell together, while the other two pushed portions of the shell apart to increase growth. These all worked very similarly to the “palate expanders” used on humans for teeth and jaw corrections, requiring his caregivers to tighten the appliances with a key every day.

Photo credit: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

The solutions used to save Andre made history. They had never been used on one of these creatures before and they revolutionized veterinary practices used in sea turtle rehabilitation. Thanks to the devotion of the caring individuals involved in his recovery, Andre was given a desperately needed second chance. His recovery would not have been possible without their passionate determination.

Photo credit: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

 

Andre’s Great Release

After thirteen months of medical treatments at LMC, the team decided the legendary reptile was finally fit to be returned to the Atlantic Ocean—just in time for green turtle mating season! The remarkable journey saw his release take place on August 3rd, with hundreds of his cheerleaders in attendance. It was a joyful celebration, offering hope that at least a few of humanity’s destructive mistakes could potentially be reversed.

Andre on his way to his big return to the ocean! (Photo credit: Tracy Burnley)

LMC received heaps of “get well” cards for this brave animal. He was “adopted” by over 200 supporters from 25 states and several foreign countries. Hundreds of people watched his recovery through a webcam positioned over his tank, as he became an icon for sea turtle conservation. All of these well-wishes and positive energy were present on the day Andre made his first oceanic swim in over a year, which likely marked one of the happiest days of this lucky turtle’s life.

Free at last! (Photo credit: Tracy Burnley)

 

The Saddest Ending to One of the Happiest Stories

Sadly, this is the part that no one wanted to hear. Just three weeks after Andre’s miraculous send-off, his lifeless body washed ashore at Hutchinson Island, Florida. A cause of death was unable to be determined, as he was discovered in extremely poor condition. There are a number of possibilities that could’ve led to this tragic incident, which could include another encounter with a boat propeller, predation, being captured in fishing gear, or even deteriorated muscle strength from the year-long stay in captivity, which was absolutely essential for his survival.

Photo credit: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

Beyond those committed to his successful recovery, Andre touched the hearts of thousands of people all around the world—including one special Bush Warrior, probably much like yourself. Avid Bush Warriors fan, Tracy Burnley, brought Andre’s story to our attention, after she personally attended his celebrated release. Inspired by the dedication of the team that nursed him back to health, and by Andre’s overwhelming will to survive, Tracy put forth an unbelievable amount of time and energy to make the following video in honor of this courageous little being.

“Watching him being returned to the sea after such a long, hard journey was truly an honor. He had amazing will to live. I’m so glad he got to swim free again. He deserved that time out there, enjoying the ocean,” says Tracy. “It would not have been possible without the staff of Loggerhead Marinelife Center and the generosity of KCI. They matched him step by step, determined not to give up. Now, the treatments they used on him are already being used on other sea turtles.”

 

Sea Turtles in Peril

Every individual animal on this planet serves a purpose. At the most essential level, each one has an ecologic role to play, enabling ecosystem functioning to continue. Once in a while, a very special animal comes along with a very important job to complete: to call our attention to a crucial issue. Sadly, these exceptional creatures endure much suffering in order to achieve this. Many would say this was the purpose of Andre’s life. His devastating loss sheds light on the plight our world’s sea turtles and also reminds us that even the greatest efforts may not be enough to overcome the damage done.

Photo credit: Loggerhead Marinelife Center

There are seven species of sea turtle on our beautiful planet. All of them are threatened with extinction. The massive Leatherback, the gorgeous Hawksbill, and the tiny Kemp’s Ridley are all considered ‘Critically Endangered’, with the third being the most endangered of all sea turtles. Green Sea Turtles, like Andre, and Loggerheads are both classified as ‘Endangered’, while the Olive Ridley is listed as ‘Vulnerable’ and the Flatback as ‘Data Deficient’.

Photo credit: NOAA

A number of factors have combined to drive these marine animals toward the point of no return. Poaching of adults, hatchlings, and eggs is certainly one of the biggest threats to their existence. While the Hawksbill turtle is more specifically targeted by poachers for its beautiful, yet coveted shell, all species are poached for their meat and eggs.

Poached sea turtles (photo via callingthecoast.wordpress.com)

Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles die when they are incidentally captured in longline, trawling, and gillnet fisheries each year. It’s believed millions are killed annually, after ingesting or becoming entangled in marine debris—most frequently, that of littered coveted plastics. Changes to nesting beaches, as a result of erosion, development, beach nourishment and dredging, and other human activities, are also a significant threat to these sea creatures. Pollution both directly and indirectly impacts these animals, as it poisons the turtles and their food and destroys delicate nearshore habitats, like coral reefs. Artificial light pollution on nesting beaches also disorients nesting females and hatchlings, which can be detrimental to their survival.

Photo credit: Proyeto Tamar Brazil

Offshore oil drilling mishaps, such as the tragic BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and other oil spills have emerged as increasing threats to the sensitive turtles and have long-term repercussions. The impacts of global warming and climate change have had serious consequences for these animals, as well. Rising temperatures have been found to heavily skew sex ratios in nests and extreme weather events can have catastrophic effects for nesting beaches. For example, last week’s Hurricane Irene destroyed at least 170 nests across North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Oil-covered sea turtle (photo via Sea Turtle Restoration Project)

Sea turtles play a vital role in the marine ecosystems they inhabit. Their existence is essential to the continued functioning of our oceans. As more and more of the sea’s organisms are lost, we become closer to a worldwide calamity. Every individual of every organism inhabiting our planet’s oceans (and on land) is growing increasingly important each day. Society must realize that, in the end, the damage we inflict on these ecosystems will lead to our own suffering. The oceans are earth’s heartbeat, the basis of nearly all processes that make the third rock from the sun inhabitable.

 

How Can You Help?

  1. Stop using plastic bags. They often resemble some sea turtles’ favorite food: jellyfish. Unaware of the dangers associated with eating them, sea turtles (and other marine organisms) gobble them down and many are killed as a result. Use eco-friendly re-useable bags when you’re shopping. Locate a recycling facility or bin in your community that specifically accepts plastic bags, so that you can safely discard any you have now. You can also write to your local legislators and encourage them to ban the use of plastic bags at stores in your area.

  2. Volunteer to clean up litter. Organize community clean-up events at your local beaches to get rid of litter before it enters the ocean. If you’re just visiting, pick up any litter you come across during your stay. Even if you don’t live anywhere near the beach, be aware that litter makes its way to the ocean from all over the place—including the most interior regions of land masses.

  3. Support ocean conservation organizations. If you can donate even $5, every little bit helps. Do your research and find the best organization to support. You can help Andre’s friends at Loggerhead Marinelife Center by clicking here. If you can’t contribute financially to an organization or group, consider volunteering your time and skills. If you are unable to volunteer on-site, offer any skills you may have that can be done online, or from a distance, including accounting, writing, grant writing, graphic design, website support, or any other thing you think might be helpful.
  4. Raise awareness. Make it a point to share this link with at least five people. Follow up with them to make sure they’ve read the article and encourage them to share it with an additional five people. Share our other links to ocean conservation stories, as well.

    To make an even bigger impact with your awareness efforts, participate in our Walking on Wildlife campaign! It’s easy, fun, and effective! All you need is your creativity, your passion, an hour of your time, and some sidewalk chalk! Click here to find out how to do it.

 

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  • Holise E Cleveland III

This entry was posted on September 1, 2011 at 2:21 pm and is filed under Oceans, Sea Turtles, Turtles and Tortoises with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed
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