Aug 30, 2011
Wellington, New Zealand -- The young Emperor penguin that captured global attention after he strayed thousands of miles from home and washed up on a New Zealand beach, is on his way home to Antarctic waters in a specially designed cage on-board a research vessel.
On Monday (August 29) the Wellington Zoo, where the bird -- nicknamed "Happy Feet" -- has been living since June, put the penguin on the NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) research vessel, Tangaroa.
"We have a bitter sweet moment I think for the zoo because we are a bit sad to see 'Happy Feet' go," said Chief Executive Karen Fifield.
Crew from the Tangaroa were impressed by how famous their new quest is - even outdoing a former prime minister.
"Even when we had Helen Clark on board saying good bye to us, we never had this sort of interest," said Niwa Chief Executive John Morgan.
"Happy Feet" has been fitted with a GPS tracker that will allow fans to monitor his progress on several websites, and will be released from the ship about four days out at sea, en route to his final destination.
Wellington Zoo veterinarian Liza Argilla, who has taken care of "Happy Feet", is accompanying the penguin. "Happy Feet" is being housed in a specially-designed crate to keep him cool and comfortable during the voyage.
"There is always apprehension because you do get attached. Like Karen was saying. But like I say, it is very exciting, it is one of the favorite parts of my job is when you can rehabilitate them. I'm actually looking forward to it," said Argilla.
Zoo staff have two options for his release into the water. One is to put him in a small sea boat and place him in the water or place him on a tarpaulin at the back of the ship and let him slide into the water.
He will be set free in the Southern Ocean, at the northern end where juvenile emperor penguins will normally be at this time of year. The sea currents should then guide him back to Antarctica.
The bird became the focus of global media after he was found on Peka Peka beach on New Zealand's north island some 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from his home, only the second Emperor penguin known to have shown up in New Zealand.
He underwent endoscopic surgery in June to remove three kilograms (6.6 pounds) of sand from its stomach before recuperating at the zoo.
Penguins normally eat snow to stay hydrated but veterinarians believe "Happy Feet", named after the main character in a popular animated film, became confused and ate sand instead.
Emperor penguins are the largest penguin species and can weigh up to 30 kg (66 pounds). The last sighting of an Emperor penguin in New Zealand took place in 1967.