WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The wayward emperor penguin dubbed Happy Feet craned his head, flapped his flippers and seemed a little perturbed as he started his journey home to cooler southern waters Monday.The penguin was moved from the Wellington Zoo, where staff has cared for him for the past two months to the research ship Tangaroa, which will release him after four days at sea at a latitude of 51 degrees south.
Happy Feet has been placed in a custom-made crate for the journey and will be kept cool with 60 buckets of ice. He'll be fed fish.
The Tangaroa is New Zealand's largest research vessel and was already scheduled to head into frigid southern waters to check on fish numbers in order to set fishing quotas.
The 3-foot-tall (meter-tall) penguin was found on a New Zealand beach June 20, far from his Antarctic feeding grounds. He was moved to the zoo after he became ill from eating sand that he likely mistook for snow. He's since regained weight and been cleared to be returned to the wild.
Lisa Argilla, a veterinarian who has helped nurse the penguin back to health, said he has a "stronger and stroppier attitude" than when he first arrived at the zoo, when his demeanor seemed flat and his feather condition was poor.
"He's definitely a survivor," she said.
"He's brought a lot of hope and joy to people," said Karen Fifield, Wellington Zoo's chief executive. "His story has driven to the heart of what makes us human."
The boat's skipper Richard O'Driscoll said that once the Tangaroa has reached the drop-off point, he will likely cut the engines and then release the penguin from the deck into the sea using a makeshift canvas slide.
More than 1,700 people went to the zoo Sunday to bid goodbye to Happy Feet, who was visible in a glassed area while getting final medical checks. The zoo has covered the cost of his stay with about $28,000 in donations.
Argilla said she will miss Happy Feet but hopes it will be the last she sees of him. By next year, she said, he will be old enough to find a mate and breed.
Happy Feet impatient for freedom
ANDREW GORRIE/Dominion Post
The penguin, which is still being kept in his crate on board the research vessel Tangaroa, now looks likely to be set free tomorrow.
The Niwa team onboard the vessel said he was coping well with the sway of the boat which is battling very rough and high seas with strong swells.
"He is even sleeping standing up, keeping perfect balance."
Yet while he may seem calm, he has lost none of his stroppiness or impatience to be released.
"When he wakes up, he squawks at the crew passing by and seems to know he is near home territory."
Wellington Zoo vet Lisa Argilla, who is travelling onboard the vessel with Happy Feet, said he was doing well, standing in his crate, and taking the conditions in his stride.
Yesterday's 5m swells were likely to be topped by 8m seas today.
The boat had slowed down for safety reasons she said.
"The Tangaroa is a reasonably big boat and the ocean is tossing her around as if she was a toy," Dr Argilla said.
Conditions were likely to clear tomorrow.
Once the boat reaches a latitude of about 51 degrees, Happy Feet will be released off the back of the boat using the ship's ramp where the crew will set up a specially-designed tarpaulin to slide him down.