WELLINGTON - A wayward Emperor penguin that washed up in New Zealand will be shipped back to sub-antarctic waters later this month on a scientific research vessel, Wellington Zoo said Wednesday.
The adult male penguin, nicknamed "Happy Feet", was found wandering on a beach near the capital in June and taken to the zoo to recuperate when he became ill after eating sand and sticks.
With the bird, only the second Emperor penguin ever recorded in New Zealand, restored to full health, zoo chief executive Karen Fifield said plans had been finalised to ship him back to the Southern Ocean.
Fifield said the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) ship Tangaroa would set sail from Wellington on August 29 with the penguin aboard.
The ship, which will carry out research into Southern Ocean fisheries, will release the bird four days into the voyage near Campbell Island, which is within the normal feeding range of Emperor penguins.
"This is an excellent result for everyone involved, and for the penguin, and is a great example of organisations working together for the best outcome," Fifield said.
The hope is that Happy Feet will swim home to Antarctica, where Emperor penguins live in colonies ranging in size from a few hundred to more than 20,000 pairs.
"The NIWA team are looking forward to having this extra special guest onboard the vessel with us for the journey," research manager Rob Murdoch said.
"Happy Feet has captured the hearts of New Zealanders and people across the world, and were pleased to be able to help safely return him to the Southern Ocean."
While aboard the ship, Happy Feet will be housed in a specially designed crate that Fifield said would keep him "cold and comfortable", with a vet and two NIWA staff to look after him.
The penguin will be fitted with a satellite tracking device before he is released, so scientists and the public can track his progress on the zoo's website.
It is thought the bird fell ill on the beach after mistaking sand for snow and eating it in a bid to lower his temperature, clogging his gut and leading to a series of operations to clear his stomach.
A diet of "fish milkshakes" at the zoo has seen Happy Feet's weight increase four kilograms (nine pounds) to 26 kilograms, giving him sufficient reserves for what will still be an arduous 2,000 kilometer (1,250 mile) swim home.
The Emperor penguin is the largest species of the distinctive waddling creature and can grow up to 1.15 meters (3ft 9in) tall.
The reason for Happy Feet's appearance in New Zealand remains a mystery, although experts say Emperor penguins take to the open sea during the Antarctic summer and this one may have simply wandered further than most.
Image (not "Happy Feet"): the.approximate.photographer / via Flickr