Association of Reef Keepers Managing Director Dr. Shannon Gore pumps stale water out of a kiddie pool temporarily confining a green sea turtle struck by a boat propeller in February. The turtle had to be euthanised this month despite the extensive rescue efforts of veterinarians, biologists and other volunteers in this territory and St. Thomas over the course of about two months. (Photo: Rushton Skinner)

Sea turtles rarely survive wounds inflicted by a boat’s propeller, according to Association of Reef Keepers Managing Director Dr. Shannon Gore.

So when she got a phone call in late February to come to the aid of an injured green sea turtle found off North Sound, she knew it was a rare chance to save a life whose ancestry she said traces back roughly 220 million years.

What follows is the story of a sea turtle later named Puzzle, and the people who did everything in their power to give her another chance to live again. Although Puzzle was euthanised this month in St. Thomas, these volunteers said the lessons learned from their efforts laid the groundwork for future cross-border efforts to rehabilitate injured turtles and other wildlife in these islands.

“While Puzzle is a valuable loss to the breeding population of green sea turtles in the [Virgin Islands], her legacy will be international partnerships that can assist injured sea turtles in the future,” said Dr. Heidi Stout, a veterinarian who assisted Puzzle after she was transferred to the Coral World Ocean and Reef Initiative in St. Thomas this month.

Found in North Sound

The injured turtle was brought to shore on Feb. 21 by yachters who found her floating in Virgin Gorda’s North Sound near the Bitter End Yacht Club. Yachters immediately brought the turtle to Beef Island, where the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries transported her to Canines, Cats and Critters in Hannahs, according to veterinary nurse Claire Dunning. From there, Dr. Gore and a crew of veterinarians and other volunteers worked in shifts to provide care.

Judging by her size and weight, they believed the 143-pound turtle could be approaching the beginning of her fertility period after an estimated 20 years of swimming around the Caribbean, Dr. Gore said.

Because her survival could mean the hatching of dozens more turtles, the biologist and the other volunteers took it upon themselves to try to save one life for the potential of many more.

Critical care

Ten days after the turtle was rescued and transported to the veterinary clinic, it went under anaesthesia — no easy feat for a reptile, according to Dr. Gore.

“Putting a turtle under takes hours,” she said. “Last one was about three hours to put under and another three to wake up. This turtle is twice the size as the last.”

Because of their slower metabolism and lower required oxygen levels, reptiles also often take far more post-operation recovery time than mammals.

Ultimately, Puzzle was asleep for five and a half hours during the initial anaesthesia, according to Ms. Dunning.

“Reptiles are apparently just difficult in general,” Dr. Gore said. “Even when you have to put one down permanently, they don’t die easily. Their heart can keep beating for 24 hours. It’s really freaky, especially when you are performing a necropsy and you see the heart beating.”

Papers, please

In Florida, there is a team of vets who specialise in treating sea turtles, and Dr. Gore acknowledged that they would have been the best option for Puzzle.

But bureaucratic red tape means that transporting threatened species across national borders is not an easy task.

Instead, the VI volunteers had to start treating the turtle themselves at the veterinary clinic in Hannahs.

“It is insane to be doing this, but we can’t just leave an injured turtle to die here because of human impacts. It would make the BVI look like we don’t care about marine life at all,” Dr. Gore said in February. “This will build our capacity to deal with more injured turtles, as we can’t just send the turtle over to the [United States] VI: It is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and needs too many permits.”

At least eight sea turtles have been rescued in this territory since 2020, according to Dr. Gore. Only three were successfully released after recovering. Several others died within 24 hours of being rescued.

Association of Reef Keepers Managing Director Dr. Shannon Gore pumps stale water out of a kiddie pool temporarily confining a green sea turtle struck by a boat propeller in February. The turtle had to be euthanised this month despite the extensive rescue efforts of veterinarians, biologists and other volunteers in this territory and St. Thomas over the course of about two months. (Photos: Rushton Skinner (above) and Dr. Shannon Gore)


To repair Puzzle’s caved-in shell, Dr. Gore and a team of vets and other volunteers used dentists’ tools and other equipment to epoxy pieces of metal to shell fragments to provide structural support.

Then they used more glue to seal the cracks from multiple strikes of a turning propeller.

After reconstructing the shell, a vacuum bag was placed over the wound to keep out bacteria. However, because the injured turtle needed to stay in water to remain comfortable and keep her wounds clean, the team struggled in the first week to get the vacuum bag to remain sealed in the wet conditions.

After days of trying, the team succeeded in sealing the bandages and set a new goal of finding a more permanent location for the sea turtle to recover.



On March 3, VI veterinarian Dr. Sarah de Swardt used a Facebook post to introduce “Puzzle” and raise awareness of her struggle.

“She is badly injured with multiple shell fractures — so bad you can see her lungs moving from outside and she’s unable to submerge in water without drowning,” Dr. de Swardt wrote. “On Saturday we operated on her, carefully cleaning and replacing her pieces of broken shell from where they had moved, then fixing them in place using a series of orthopaedic plates and marine adhesives.”

For nearly seven weeks, ARK and Canines, Cats and Critters worked to keep Puzzle alive, and Dr. de Swardt provided another update in an April 8 Facebook post.

“It’s been 47 days since ARK first brought us a beautiful green sea turtle, about to embark on her reproductive journey, that had sustained catastrophic injuries after being hit by a boat,” she wrote. “We named her Puzzle after she beat the odds and pulled through major surgery where we reconstructed and stabilised her badly fractured shell like a living jigsaw. But really, that was only the tip of the iceberg for her rehab.”

The vacuum bandage, for instance, still needed to be changed frequently.

“Her wound vac dressings are changed by the newly crowned ‘turtle vacuum expert’ Claire Dunning and a team of volunteers every couple of days — a process that takes over two hours every time,” Dr. de Swardt wrote. “Puzzle is a clever girl and has gotten quite good at making sure this is as difficult as possible for her carers.”

Puzzle also refused to eat on her own, so a feeding tube installed during surgery kept her alive.

“Into this tube she is given a special liquidised blend of sea grass, veggies, medication and specially imported (expensive) sea turtle critical care food,” Dr. de Swardt wrote. “To make sure the food stays down and isn’t regurgitated, Puzzle has to have her front half elevated for around an hour after each feeding.”

After some trial and error, her caregivers devised a system involving a car engine hoist and padded straps to facilitate her feeding.

Puzzle arrives in St. Thomas at Coral World and Reef Initiative. (Photo: CWORI)
In transit

Between shifts of changing Puzzle’s water a few times per day, Dr. Gore was fighting the bureaucratic battle to legally transport the turtle to St. Thomas for access to better diagnostic equipment at the Coral World Ocean and Reef Initiative.

The required documentation included an export permit from this territory, an import permit from the US, a US Department of Agriculture permit, and permission from US Fish and Wildlife Service to bypass the designated entry point in Miami.

“The VI government supported getting Puzzle out, so thankfully the process was expedited on our side compared to the US side,” she said. “Once we went through several hoops, the import permit was miraculously issued in about 24 hours.”

On April 12, Puzzle was transported to St. Thomas to undergo further diagnostic testing with equipment that allowed doctors to peer under her shell.

But on St. Thomas, the turtle caretakers’ worst fear was realised: Puzzle had irreparable intestinal damage from her boating accident. This explained why she wouldn’t eat.

“The battery of diagnostic tests that were performed on Puzzle indicated that she was gravely injured. Despite the heroic efforts of everyone involved, the most humane choice for Puzzle was euthanasia,” Dr. Stout, the CWORI veterinarian, said in an April 25 press release. “The extent of her devastating injuries [was] confirmed on postmortem examination.”

After almost two months of fighting for her life, Puzzle was euthanised on April 20.

“We are all so gutted about losing Puzzle,” Ms. Dunning said. “She was in our care for 51 days and everyone gave her 150 percent.”

Why try?

At times during the ordeal, Dr. Gore said, she struggled to explain to herself why exactly she was doing so much for a creature with such a low chance of survival.

Ultimately, she concluded that it was the right thing to do.

“When people have asked, ‘Why save this turtle?,’ there are several reasons: One is that Puzzle clearly represents how we are destroying our oceans one species at a time,” Dr. Gore said. “Secondly, if we don’t try to save the ones we can, especially the breeding stock, how are we supposed to recover entire populations?”

There is an old saying, the ARK director added: “You can judge a community by how they treat their animals.”

Puzzle might be forever gone, but after the efforts of dozens of dedicated volunteers, she will be remembered for a long time to come.