Happy Feet, Lost Emperor Penguin, Swims for Antarctic Home

Emperor penguin became a sensation after washing up on New Zealand beach.

September 4, 2011, 8:46 PM

Sept. 5, 2011 — -- Happy Feet, the emperor penguin who captured the hearts of millions around the world when it got lost 3,000 miles from its snowy Antarctica home, has successfully been returned to the sea, but not without some drama.

In a video showing his release yesterday, the bird -- nicknamed Happy Feet -- seemed reluctant to leave his crate aboard the research vessel Tangaroa. Once he was in the water, the bird started swimming in the wrong direction.

The wayward penguin had been housed at the Wellington Zoo in New Zealand since it arrived on the nation's shores in June. After life-saving surgeries, the bird left New Zealand with a crew aboard the Tangaroa on Aug. 29.

Choppy seas in at the drop-off point in the Southern Ocean yesterday would have made it too difficult to release him by hand, so a special slide was constructed.

But, faced with the open ocean for the first time in months, the 3-foot tall, 3-year-old penguin didn't seem to know what to do.

"Happy Feet needed some gentle encouragement to leave the safety of his crate that has been his home for six days," Dr. Lisa Argilla, the zoo's manager of veterinary science, said in a posting on the zoo's blog yesterday. "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. It's definitely the best part of the job."

Added Dr. Richard O'Driscoll, the voyage leader: "He went onto his belly … unfortunately he went down the stern ramp backwards rather than forwards, so he wouldn't have got a perfect 10 for entry."

Once he was in the water, the bird initially started swimming in the wrong direction. Happy Feet was heading east, rather than south toward Antarctica.

But he corrected his course, and last night was swimming for home.

Argilla said some "deviations in his swimming course" were to be expected, according to the Herald Sun of New Zealand.

Happy Feet was found washed up on a New Zealand beach June 20, the first emperor penguin in 44 years to be found so far from its home.

He was moved to the zoo after he became sick from eating sand that zoo officials said he likely mistook for snow.

The penguin underwent three medical procedures in his two months at the zoo, including one in which approximately 7 pounds of sand, sticks and stones were removed from his stomach.

Happy Feet regained about 18 pounds after his surgeries, thanks to a diet of fish milkshakes, and was given the all-clear by officials over the weekend.

"It's very exciting for me to get him to this point where we can release him," zoo veterinarian Lisa Argilla told ABC News.

Happy Feet captured the world's attention with his amazing tale of travel and recovery. He lived in a glassed area at the zoo, which also set up a web camera to allow people everywhere to tune in.

Nearly one quarter of a million viewers logged on to watch the penguin mainly eat and sleep. Happy Feet fans also sent in more than $28,000 in donations which allowed the zoo to cover the cost of his surgeries and recovery.

And on Sunday, more than 1,700 people gathered at the zoo to say a final goodbye to him.

"Obviously, the world is attached to him. I am attached to him, and my team is attached to him, but it's the best thing for him," she said, speaking of his release.

The penguin has been fitted with a GPS tracker, and fans can follow his progress on Our Far South website, the Sirtrack website and the Wellington Zoo.

ABC News' David Wright and Ben Krolowitz and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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