11 September 2011

Happy trails, Happy Feet!

NEW ZEALAND -  It was one small slide for a penguin, one giant slide for penguin-kind as Happy Feet, a strong contender for World's Most Adventurous Penguin, became the first emperor freed into the wild with a tracking device.

Watch the video of Happy Feet's release at Stuff.co.nz

The wayward penguin, who found his way onto a New Zealand beach and into people's hearts worldwide, was released from NIWA's vessel Tangaroa into the Southern Ocean at 10:30 am on 4 September, 49 miles due north of Campbell Island, at a depth of 285 metres.

Wellington Zoo's manager of veterinary science, Dr Lisa Argilla, had to give her patient a friendly nudge to send him on his way down the purpose-made hydro-slide off the stern ramp of the vessel. Other release options, including using an inflatable boat, could not be used because of the rough seas.

“Happy Feet needed some gentle encouragement to leave the safety of his crate that has been his home for six days," Dr Argilla said.

"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!" she said. "It’s definitely the best part of the job.”

The NIWA team onboard were all out on deck to farewell their special passenger, glad that he has been returned to his natural environment.

Voyage leader Dr Richard O'Driscoll said it had 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. We are just happy to help him on his journey home.”

On 29 August, a day after his penguin-themed farewell party, Happy Feet left Wellington Zoo – 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.

As the Tangaroa's Very Important Penguin, Happy Feet was treated to hoki for his meals and ‘room service’ with fresh ice put in his crate each day. It has been a very rough journey, but it seemed that Happy Feet coped with the rollercoaster seas better than his caretaker.

"Mr HF was, as per usual, stroppy!" Dr Argilla wrote on The Nest blog on 2 September. "I was slipping and sliding around the crate this morning while trying to hold his mouth open for fish, and he took advantage of the fact that Dan [from NIWA] and I were struggling ... little fiend ... He is still doing so well, I still can't believe how he just stands in his crate while I'm holding onto whatever I can find for dear life for fear of being swept overboard!"

The team onboard Tangaroa will now continue their voyage on a month-long fisheries survey on Campbell Island southern blue whiting stocks. Dr Argilla is still writing her blog, although things are much quieter without her Mr HF.

The day after his release she wrote, "It was a little sad not having to check up on him first thing and have him tell me off with is characteristic little head nod. I couldn't help but get a little (ok, a lot!) attached to him after 2 months. Ah well, I am still ecstatic that he is free, and I bet he is too!" 

Dr Argilla is filling in her time by working on her thesis and fighting seasickness, as well as following the penguin's progress.

"Part of the routine now is to get daily updates as to HF's position as the crew (and me of course) are all VERY interested in what he is up to. We're pretty happy he is cruising steadily South. There is a lot of fish around so he is likely having a great time munching on them as he passes," she wrote on 8 September.

Happy Feet has been fitted with a Sirtrack satellite tracker and a microchip, thanks to the generous support of Gareth Morgan, so fans are able to follow his travels at www.nzemperor.com.

The Dominion Post reported that even New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key had something to say about the penguin's successful release: "I am glad an orca whale didn't eat him; we wish him the best."

I hope all goes well for our feathered friend. To quote Dr Argilla, "Good luck Mr HF, keep safe, swim home SOUTH please, find some mates, and please stay away from those orcas and leopard seals!"

I would also add a reminder that SAND IS NOT SNOW.

Read related posts

Happy Feet travel blog number 9 by Dr Lisa Argilla, 2 September 2011, Wellington Zoo's Nest blog
Happy Feet has been successfully released, 4 September 2011, Wellington Zoo
Happy Feet travel blog number 13 by Dr Lisa Argilla, 4 September 2011, Wellington Zoo's Nest blog
Happy Feet released in Southern Ocean by Kate Newton, 4 September 2011, The Dominion Post
Dr Lisa Argilla travel blog number 1 by Dr Lisa Argilla, 5 September 2011, Wellington Zoo's Nest blog
Hard to tell if Happy Feet is heading in the right direction by Kiran Chug, 6 September 2011, The Dominion Post
Dr Lisa Argilla travel blog number 2 by Dr Lisa Argilla, 8 September 2011, Wellington Zoo's Nest blog

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