JUNO BEACH, Florida — When rescued, he had a collapsed lung, pneumonia and holes in his shell that exposed his spinal cord and allowed in several pounds of sand — as well as a crab. Thirteen months later, and after surgeries that included braces to close gashes, he's a free turtle.
A sea turtle, to be more precise, one from an endangered species whose chances of bouncing back just got a little bit better.
Andre, as the 177-pound green turtle is known, on Wednesday crawled into the water on this Florida beach and swam out of sight before hundreds of fans.
He was near death when he was found split open on a sandbar on June 15, 2010.
"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."
Any one of his 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 long effort to save him.
To help remove fluid and other materials and close his wounds, doctors used a therapy developed by Kinetic Concepts Inc. that applies negative pressure to an area.
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 Kinetic Concepts 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 because of habitat loss and demand for turtle meat and eggs in some countries. 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. Green turtles are one of six species of sea turtles that nest on U.S. beaches. All six species are listed as endangered or threatened.
"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.
Andre 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."
Andre's survival has inspired fans across the world who heard his story or watched his round-the-clock webcam from Andre's own fan page. 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."
For Mettee, Andre's principal caregiver, the release was too tough to be part of.
"Saying goodbye to Andre is bittersweet," she said before his release. "I love to see him return to the wild, but I’d hate to watch him leave."
The Associated Press contributed to this report..