Wayward penguin released south of New Zealand
Happy Feet was released into the ocean south of New Zealand on Sunday, more than two months after he came ashore on a beach nearly 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers) from home and became an instant celebrity.
Speaking from a satellite phone aboard the research vessel Tangaroa, Wellington Zoo veterinarian Lisa Argilla said Happy Feet's release went remarkably smoothly given that the boat was being tossed about in 25-foot (8-meter) swells in the unforgiving Antarctic ocean.
Argilla said crew members from the boat carried the penguin inside his custom-built crate to the stern of the ship for his final send-off about 50 nautical miles (90 kilometers) north of remote Campbell Island. The crew had already cut the engines and put in place a canvas slide that they soaked with water from a hose.
But when they opened the door of the crate, the penguin showed no interest in leaving.
"I needed to give him a little a tap on his back," Argilla said.
The penguin slipped down the slide on his stomach, bottom first, she said. He resurfaced about 6 feet (2 meters) from the boat, took a look up at the people aboard, and then disappeared beneath the surface.
"I was really happy to see him go," Argilla said. "The best part of my job is when you get to release animals back into the wild where they are supposed to be."
The 3-foot-tall (meter-tall) aquatic bird was found June 20 on Peka Peka Beach, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) northwest of New Zealand's capital, Wellington. It had been 44 years since an emperor penguin was last spotted in the wild in New Zealand.
At first, conservation authorities said they would wait and let nature take its course with the penguin. But it soon became clear the bird's condition was deteriorating, as he scooped up beaks full of sand and swallowed, likely mistaking it for snow, which emperor penguins eat for its moisture when in Antarctica.
With the world watching, authorities finally took action, moving the penguin to the Wellington Zoo four days after he was discovered.
At the zoo, the 3 1/2-year-old bird underwent numerous stomach flushing procedures to remove sand from his digestive system. He was given a makeshift home in a room that zoo staff kept filled with a bed of ice so he wouldn't overheat.
A local television station, TV3, set up a webcam and streamed images of the bird around-the-clock. Soon, Happy Feet had a quarter-million followers.
And, perhaps befitting of a bird from the Internet age, those followers will be able to keep track of him for a while longer. Happy Feet has been fitted with a GPS tracker, and his movements will be posted online. Argilla expects the tracker to fall off the next time the bird molts.
Argilla said the final boat journey, which began last Monday and ran into terrible weather, was difficult for her — she got seasick — and the crew. The one who seemed least bothered, she said, was Happy Feet, who rolled with the swells, slept standing up and took nips at the crew when they fed him fresh fish.
Now that Happy Feet has been nursed back to health, Argilla said his chances are as good as they are for any other penguin in the wild.
"He swam away, not caring about us anymore," Argilla said.
"And that's a good thing," she said.
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NIWA, Fuseworks September 4, 2011
NIWA: Goodbye Happy Feet - We wish you well
Happy Feet was released at 10.30 am this morning, 49 miles due north of Campbell Island, at a depth of 285 metres.
The emperor penguin was released down a purpose-made 'hydro-slide' off the stern ramp of the vessel by Wellington Zoo, Manager of Veterinary Science, Dr Lisa Argilla and NIWA staff. Other options to release the Happy Feet, including using an inflatable boat, could not be used because of the rough seas.
Dr Argilla said the release went without a hitch.
"Happy Feet needed some gentle encouragement to leave the safety of his crate that has been his home for six days. He slid down his specially designed penguin slide backwards but once he hit the water he spared no time in diving off away from the boat and all those 'aliens' who have been looking after him for so long."
"It's an indescribable feeling to see a patient finally set free! It's definitely the best part of the job," Dr Argilla said.
The NIWA team onboard were all out on deck to farewell their special passenger. Everyone is glad he's now been returned to his natural environment.
"It's been a pleasure to have Happy Feet onboard. He's been a well-behaved passenger, except when our team have helped to feed him, and he's shown them who the boss is with a peck or two," says voyage leader Dr Richard O'Driscoll. "We are just happy to help him on his journey home."
Happy Feet left Wellington Zoo last Monday- his home for the last two months since being found exhausted and hungry on Peka Peka beach on the Kapiti Coast - in a travel crate specially designed to keep him cold and comfortable during the voyage.
Onboard Tangaroa Happy Feet has been treated to hoki for his meals and 'room service' with fresh ice put in his crate each day.
The team onboard Tangaroa will now continue their voyage on a month-long fisheries survey on Campbell Island southern blue whiting stocks. Happy Feet has been fitted with a Sirtrack satellite tracker and a microchip, thanks to the generous support of Gareth Morgan.
Fans can follow his progress on the Wellington Zoo website (www.wellingtonzoo.com) Sirtrack website (www.sirtrack.com) and the Our Far South website (www.ourfarsouth.org).
Hard to tell if Happy Feet headed in right direction
There was concern among online watchers yesterday that the wayward emperor penguin appeared to be heading north again after his release, rather than home to Antarctica.
But Te Papa terrestrial vertebrates curator Colin Miskelly warned people watching the penguin's movements through a tracking device not to be alarmed if the tracking map suggested he was heading in the wrong direction.
"It isn't a GPS. It's a satellite tracker and the error in that is substantial," he said. "When you see it zig-zagging, it can't give you a precise fix."
There was little point in reading too much into the data until a pattern emerged after several days, Dr Miskelly said.
Happy Feet was released in waters about 285 metres deep near Campbell Island on Sunday. He is the first emperor freed into the wild with a tracking device. Massey University associate professor John Cockrem, who has studied the penguins in Antarctica, said juveniles did not return to Antarctica to breed until they were about five years old.
Happy Feet could be swimming around the ocean until then – although his tracker will fall off his feathers once he moults later this year.
He is believed to be aged somewhere between one and five, although his age has been debated. "If the bird is only two or three, it might take a year or two before it would naturally go back to the [Antarctic] continent," Dr Cockrem said.
Was Happy Feet bird-napped by a trawler?
KATE NEWTON 9/5/2011
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Wellington Zoo vet Lisa Argilla, who helped to free the emperor penguin from the research vessel Tangaroa yesterday, said zoo staff had discussed whether he might have been by-catch from a fishing boat in southern waters and later released closer to Wellington.
"That's very possible that that could have happened.
"There's no way we'll ever know."
After six days at sea, rough conditions subsided enough for Dr Argilla and Niwa scientists on board the Tangaroa to release Happy Feet, down a tarpaulin "hydroslide" rigged on the boat's stern ramp.
The tracker on Happy Feet shows he swam north-east for a time, before getting his bearings and heading south.
Hesitant about leaving his purpose- built, ice-filled crate, Dr Argilla had to nudge him out onto the ramp, where he stood craning his neck at crew members.
A final nudge sent him sliding in an undignified backwards descent to the ocean, to the cheers of his human entourage.
"He gave us one last look, then took off and dived and we never saw him again," Dr Argilla told The Dominion Post.
She was happy to see him back in his natural habitat.
"It's the best part of my job - I'm just hoping that he's going to live a great life."
Happy Feet was due to be released on Friday, but 130kmh winds and swells of up to 15 metres pushed the Tangaroa off course.
The boat finally reached a latitude of 51 degrees - the northern end of emperor penguins' range - overnight on Saturday. Happy Feet has been fitted with a tracking device so his progress can be monitored.
Dr Argilla said he was fit and healthy and had "just as much chance" of surviving as other juvenile emperor penguins, which tend to swim alone. He could spend up to a year in the Southern Ocean before meeting up with other juveniles and returning to Antarctica to breed.
Conservation Department spokesman Reuben Williams said DOC staff would not be investigating the possibility Happy Feet could have been dumped by a fishing crew.