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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Happy Feet" on board 'Tangaroa' heading back to Antarctica

The land of MaoriNew Zealand was abuzz with people following Happy Feet – a very unusual visitor, an Emperor penguin.  The Country is situated 900 miles east of Australia across the Tasman sea.  To us it is closer to Antarctic (relativity !) – the shortest distance  from mainland New Zealand to Antarctica is 2550km.

Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) is the tallest and heaviest of all living penguin species and is endemic to Antarctica. The male and female are similar in plumage and size, Like all penguins they are flightless, with a streamlined body, and wings stiffened and flattened into flippers for a marine habitat.  Their  diet consists primarily of fish, but can also include crustaceans, such as krill, and cephalopods, such as squid. They are known for the sequence of journeys adults make each year in order to mate and to feed their offspring.  But this journey from the Earth’s south pole does not occur often !

It is the story of a wayward emperor penguin dubbed Happy Feet – yesterday (29th Aug 11) it craned its head, flapped its flippers and seemed a little perturbed as it embarked  journey back  home to cooler southern waters.  It was sighted at the Kapiti coast beach reportedly after 44 years, found huge public support, taken care so well at Wellington Zoo and now is aboard research vessel Tangaroa back to its home at a latitude of 51 degrees south.  By the time it was treated, it had consumed  large quantity of non-food items and health was deteriorating.  It had also taken beak fulls of sand perhaps mistaken for ice.   The veterinary team at Wellington  removed the sand and small bits of driftwood. X rays revealed sand and small stones ! Penguins are known to have pebbles in their tummies !! but where from did they come was intriguing..


Happy Feet is extremely popular; thousands have watched it eat, sleep and waddle through a zoo webcam.  The recovery and cost of maintenance at the zoo has been covered with donations pouring in.  Every detail of his recovery, from the daily reports of weight gain and dietary preferences.  He was fed on a diet of fish milkshakes in an air-conditioned room. Millions had followed it online.  The entire Nation started debating on it – the Dept of Conservation was baffled on how it landed there; it attracted crowds of onlookers.  Experts said that it is a juvenile, about 10 months old and 32in (80cm) tall. It may have been searching for squid and krill when it took a wrong turn and arrived on New Zealand’s North Island was one of the explanations. 

After experiencing the warmth and care for nearly two months, Happy feet is traversing back to its home.  Now it has a satellite tag  glued to his lower back.  It was  placed in a purpose-built crate and loaded on to the NIWA research vessel Tangaroa at its berth in Wellington Harbour, a few kilometres from Wellington Zoo, on 29 August. The Tangaroa will be undertaking an acoustic survey of southern blue whiting fish stocks in the vicinity of Campbell Island during most of September. Campbell Island is the southernmost of New Zealand’s subantarctic islands; it lies at 52.5 degrees south, approximately 1100 km north of the maximum extent of the Antarctic pack ice.   The vessel being  a research vessel has place for Happy Feet but none for the media and hence TV crews bid farewell on the wharf.  The release is to be videoed and perhaps the footage would sent via a satellite link.  It is likely to be released on or about 2nd Sept.   The satellite tag that is glued to Happy Feet  is not a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit. Developed by the Sirtrack team it would be able to locate the area of the penguin.   

The journey back home is explained in the newspapers to be well planned.  Happy Feet has been placed in a custom-made crate for the journey and will be kept cool with 60 buckets of ice. It will be fed fish.  Authorities have decided to release Happy Feet at the northern point of where other juvenile emperor penguins would be at this time of year. Quoting the  boat's skipper reports suggest that  once the Tangaroa  reached the drop-off point,  the engines will be cut off and penguin will be released from the deck into the sea with a makeshift canvas slide.  From there it can follow sea currents and return to Antarctica with the others.  Once released, it has the same survival chances of any other emperor penguin making the seasonal journey home, experts said. 

Even as the whole of Nation and parts of the World went gaga about it unusual appearance, there are some different discordant notes as well.  A post in Wellington's Dominion Post questioned the use of money on an animal whose species is not endangered.  It says that bird rescue and rehabilitation is not pressing conservation priority and that the amount spent could support restoration of a wetland or  could have provided habitat to many species.  

Whatever it be, Happy Feet is benefitted by the fantastic coincidence of the research vessel’s journey to 53 degrees south, which is within the natural range of juvenile emperor penguins.  It was sent off with a farewell party and people reportedly wore black and white in its honour.  Happy Feet is already on a remarkable marine sojourn, back to its native land leaving behind too many questions unanswered.

Regards – S. Sampathkumar.

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