New Zealanders help a wayward penguin find his way home

A lost emperor penguin rescued on a New Zealand beach in June 2011 was released into the wild after two months of recovery. Will he find his way home?

On the morning of June 20, 2011, Christine Wilton was walking her dog at Peka Peka beach on New Zealand’s North Island when, to her utter astonishment, she encountered a most unexpected visitor. She described her reaction in an interview with the Associated Press.

It was out of this world to see it … like someone just dropped it from the sky.

Happy Feet at Peka Peka beach. Image Credit: Department of Conservation, New Zealand.

“It” was an emperor penguin. A very lost emperor penguin.

Wildlife experts were mystified. What on earth was this bird doing on a New Zealand beach in winter? At that time of year, male emperor penguins were supposed to be wintering along the Antarctic coast, huddled together in colonies while each bird carefully incubated an egg. Female emperors were supposed to be at sea, but not as far north as Peka Peka beach.

DNA tests later showed that the bird, standing about two-and-a-half feet tall, was male. Experts speculated he might have been feeding at sea that summer, hunting prey like squid and krill, but at some point he must have taken a wrong turn, heading north instead of south.

It didn’t take long for the wayward emperor penguin to build a following of curious people who came to see him at the beach. They nicknamed him “Happy Feet,” after the 2006 animated movie about a tap-dancing emperor penguin chick.

Happy Feet had arrived at the beach in apparent good health. Wildlife officials hoped his stay would be brief, that he would soon return to the sea and head south. Instead, he lingered on the beach. New Zealand’s winter temperatures, around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, were sweltering conditions for a bird adapted to endure Antarctic winter temperatures as low as -31 F. Emperor penguins eat snow to hydrate themselves and cool off. Unfortunately, Happy Feet thought that beach sand would be an acceptable substitute, and started eating sand and small bits of driftwood. As a result, his health rapidly deteriorated.

Happy Feet during his recovery at Wellington Zoo. Image Credit: Department of Conservation, New Zealand.

Five days after he was discovered, it was clear that Happy Feet wasn’t going to survive if left alone on the beach. That’s when the Wellington Zoo stepped in. The penguin was transported to their facility for treatment. A surgical team led by one of New Zealand’s leading surgeons, gastroenterologist John Wyeth, who had volunteered his services, spent about two hours carefully removing much of the debris in Happy Feet’s inflamed gut using an endoscope. (Remaining sand later passed out naturally.) It was a close call for the penguin but he survived, thanks to the dedicated staff at Wellington Zoo’s veterinary department.

In all, Happy Feet spent seventy-two days recovering from his ordeal. He lived comfortably in a specially-designed refrigerated room with a regularly replenished carpet of ice. His caretakers fed him a fish slurry to build his strength and fat reserves, helping him become fit enough for life in the wild.

Wildlife officials decided that he should be released in waters south of New Zealand, in an area within the northern-most feeding range for emperor penguins. But Happy Feet was still about 1,200 miles from “home.” His caregivers had done all they could for him – it was now up to him to resume a normal life in the wild, by swimming south towards Antarctic waters to reunite with others of his kind.

By now, Happy Feet’s story of survival had captured the imagination of people across the world. An Internet live stream of the penguin during his recovery was visited, according to Wellington Zoo’s CEO, Karen Fifield, by over 270,000 individual computers. A giant bon voyage card containing well-wishes from over 1,200 people was presented to Happy Feet’s recovery team. The day before he left Wellington Zoo, hundreds of people stopped by to bid the penguin farewell. New Zealand singer-songwriter Don Wilson even wrote a song about him, the Ballad of Happy Feet.

On August 29, 2011, Happy Feet was taken aboard the vessel Tangaroa, owned by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. During the voyage, he was comfortably housed in a custom-made crate, with plenty of ice and frozen salmon on hand.

Seventy-six days after he surprised Christine Wilton on Peka Peka beach, at 10:28 a.m. on Sunday, September 4, Happy Feet was rather unceremoniously released into the Southern Ocean, sliding backwards down a specially-designed ramp into the water.

In a press release from the Wellington Zoo, veterinary science manager, Dr. Lisa Argilla, said,

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.

She added,

It’s an indescribable feeling to see a patient finally set free! It’s definitely the best part of the job.

Happy Feet’s story isn’t over. Before his release into the Southern Ocean, he was fitted with a satellite tracker on his tail. That will allow scientists to monitor his movements, presumably until the transmitter fails or is dislodged. You can also keep track of Happy Feet’s journey at the Our Far South website, a conservation organization dedicated to raising awareness of ocean habitat between New Zealand and Antarctica. There you’ll find an interactive map showing Happy Feet’s movements, as well as daily updates. Click on a blue circle to see the exact time Happy Feet’s location was recorded.

We won’t know for sure if Happy Feet’s got his bearing straight – that may take several days, even weeks, to verify – but so far, from his drop-off point, he’s been making leisurely progress in the right general direction: south.

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