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 also popular. Viewers have watched him eat, sleep and waddle on a zoo webcam. And he's been fitted with a GPS tracker so people can follow his progress online after he is released.
"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.
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