Aug. 29, 2011 -- The lost emperor penguin that found itself 3,000 miles from its snowy home in Antarctica has begun its return journey to its native land after receiving lifesaving surgery.
The wayward penguin, known to the world as Happy Feet, left the Wellington Zoo in New Zealand today aboard the research vessel Tangaroa for the four-day trip back to his homeland, where Happy Feat will rejoin his other emperor penguin friends.
"We have a bittersweet moment, I think, for the zoo," Wellington Zoo chief executive Karen Fifield told ABC News. "We are a bit sad to see Happy Feet go."
The 3-foot-tall penguin will travel to Antarctica aboard the research ship Tangaroa in a travel crate especially designed to keep him cold and comfortable.
He will be kept cool with 60 buckets of ice and fed a diet of fish
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 Wellington 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, most recently one that removed approximately 7 pounds of sand, sticks and stones from his stomach.
"We probably emptied about half the stomach. Hopefully, now with a bit of luck, the stomach will now start functioning on its own accord," gastroenterologist John Wyeth of Wellington Hospital told The Associated Press after the surgery in June.
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 exicting for me to get him to this point where we can release him," zoo veterinarian Lisa Argilla told ABC News.
1,700 Bid Penguin Farewell
Happy Feet is hitching a ride with the Tangaroa, New Zealand's largest research vessel, on a scheduled month-long fisheries survey into frigid southern waters to set fishing quotas.
Researchers will release Happy Feet at about 51 degrees south, within the penguin's natural habitat.
Argilla and two other staffers specifically trained by the zoo will join Happy Feet on his trip home.
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.
And tune in they did, with nearly a quarter million viewers logging on in the past two months to watch the penguin mainly eat and sleep. Happy Feet fans also sent in more than $28,000 in donations that 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 Happy Feet.
"Obviously, the world is attached to him. I am attached to him, and my team is attached to him," Argilla said. "But it's the best thing for him."
Final decisions on exactly how Happy Feet will be released into the waters will be made onsite, depending on weather conditions and how Happy Feet responds, according to Argilla.
Options include releasing him down a purpose-made slide off the stern ramp of the vessel or using an inflatable boat.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.