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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Happy Feet off the radar – fears of its safety surfaces !!

A Nation cared for it – millions followed it online; So much was invested on it.  It was fitted with a  Sirtrack KiwiSat 202 Satellite Transmitter which was to l transmit signals to satellites twice a day for three hours.  Those transmissions from the KiwiSat 202  would ensure monitoring its position as it travels.  Each new position  was being plotted on the map and progress was being followed.  Though the path could not be guided, its going towards the right destination would have brought cheers to those following it. 

If you are still wondering what the subject matter is:  -  it is the Emperor Penguin named ‘Happy Feet’ whose fortunes and path have been so much followed fascinatingly treating it to be a   rare opportunity to learn about the movements of an amazing animal.  Penguins  are  aquatic, flightless birds living almost exclusively in the southern hemisphere, especially in Antarctica. They spend about half of their lives on land and half in the oceans.

being dropped from the vessel
An Emperor Penguin, which is not known to be there,  first appeared on Peka Peka beach in New Zealand in mid-June after presumably swimming more than 2,000 miles from his Antarctic home. The penguin quickly became sick and emaciated after eating sand and other debris found on the beach.  It was named  Happy Feet and taken to Wellington Zoo where it captured the hearts and imaginations of families in New Zealand and around the world, with millions following it on line.  It was stated that the penguin had eaten sand mistaking it for snow and needed hydration.  The Doctors pumped Happy Feet's stomach, removing sand and other debris. Hundreds of people gathered at the zoo in late June to watch the endoscopy procedures.

After experiencing the warmth and care, and upon recovery, Happy Feet 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.  It was taken aboard on a well planned mission placed in a custom-made crate for the journey kept cool with 60 buckets of ice and fed fish during the transit.  
The monitoring equipment - KiwiSat 202  was  fitted to Happy Feet's feathers using glue and tape, a technique commonly and successfully used, by an experienced scientist and supervised by the experts at Wellington Zoo. The KiwiSat 202 weighs less than 100g, less than 1% of Happy Feet's body weight. It has been designed to be streamlined so it will not affect the penguin's swimming.

It did function properly and the first 96 hours revealed that Happy Feet travelled about 100 km in a south-easterly direction, travelling at a rate of about 1.2 km per hour (29.3 km per day).  But suddenly after 8 am on 9th Sept 11, there have been no signals from the satellite tracking device.    Though the  curator of terrestrial vertebrates at Te Papa, Colin Miskelly, said he "didn't want to speculate - there is a question mark about what has happened", there appeared to be a multitude of possible reasons why the signal had failed to appear.

Optimistically, they range from transmitter failure or damage, to signals not being received by the satellite.  That could be due to the penguin diving, the transmitter falling off and sinking, or ……….

The jungle law of survival of the fittest is common to water also.   Penguins have no fear of humans and mankind is not its enemy.  They are at risk at sea from predators such as the leopard seal.  The sea leopard,   killer whales and sharks are the worst enemies of a penguin and the absence of signal could be because  of ……….. the animal being inside a larger predator.  There has not been a single satellite message from Happy Feet since last Friday which perhaps is an indication that the transmitter has not broken the surface of the sea at all since then.  

Technology is so advanced – Happy Feet was fitted not only with tracking device of Sritrack but also with a passive transponder that will last for his entire life expectancy of 24 years.  That transponder is likented to a microchip fitted to a dog.  The French-developed tagging system will automatically register if Happy Feet enters a monitored colony. However, at the moment, out of 38 known Antarctica breeding colonies there was only one with the technology.
So to those who wish him well, he is probably swimming along quite happily without a transmitter on his back.  After all Happy Feet is a marine bird designed to swim and live in the ocean.  The transponder might get activated if it turns up near certain monitored emperor colonies of Antarctica.   It would take few more years for him to come to the colony for breeding.  Now they say that tag loss is quite common in wildlife studies as the well being of the animal is more important than fixing the tag obstinately.   They also say that once it was dropped, it was behaving fine..   it was moving in  zig-zag type path – indicating that it  was probably having a good feed and keeping up his strength for the journey ahead.

Though penguins are endangered by predators at sea, the real position of Happy Feet would remain an unanswered mystery or perhaps a mystery where nobody would like to confirm though the chances of hearing Happy Feet appears pretty bleak.  Some groups had questioned the amount of expenditure involved in keeping Happy Feet fine and on sending it back ….  hope Happy Feet lives to bring cheers to all those involved in ensuring its journey back to its home

S. Sampathkumar

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