WELLINGTON - A wayward penguin that became a worldwide celebrity after washing up lost on a New Zealand beach left Wellington on Monday aboard a research ship bound for his frigid home waters in Antarctica.
The giant bird, dubbed Happy Feet, set sail on the New Zealand fisheries vessel Tangaroa in a custom-made insulated crate with his own veterinary team in attendance and a contingent of media to bid him farewell at the dock.
The relatively quiet departure was in contrast to the scenes at Wellington Zoo on Sunday, when thousands of well-wishers turned out to bid him farewell at the animal hospital where he has spent two months recuperating.
Happy Feet was found on a beach just outside Wellington in mid-June -- weak, emaciated and more than 3,000 kilometres (1,900 miles) from the Antarctic colony where he hatched about three-and-a-half years ago.
Only the second emperor penguin ever recorded in New Zealand, he was close to death and needed surgery to remove sand and sticks from his stomach before he could be fattened up on a diet of fish milkshakes.
The bird, which now weighs about 27.5 kilograms (60.5 pounds), attracted international attention during New Zealand sojourn and there are plans for a book and documentary recounting his story.
The juvenile male will be released into the Southern Ocean four days into the Tangaroa's voyage, where the hope is he will rejoin other emperor penguins and eventually make his way back to Antarctica.
Wellington Zoo's veterinary manager Lisa Argilla said she was nervous but excited about Happy Feet's return to the wild and had grown fond of the bird during his stay.
"There's always apprehension because you do get attached to them but it's very exciting," she told TVNZ Monday.
"It's one of the favourite parts of my job, when you can rehabilitate them, so I'm actually looking forward to it."
Argilla, assisted by two staff from the research vessel, will look after the penguin before he is lowered into the icy Southern Ocean, and she will then spend another three weeks aboard the Tangaroa before it returns to Wellington.
She told AFP last week that she expected the penguin to handle the notoriously rough seas better than her.
"I get very seasick... he won't mind about 10-metre (33-foot) swells, this guy's used to harsh conditions," she said.
"He'll probably be pretty excited actually and just dive away and that'll be the last we see of him.
"He'll hopefully bump into some penguins that he recognises, fingers crossed. Otherwise, he'll just go and probably establish himself in another colony."
Attendances at Wellington Zoo almost doubled during Happy Feet's stay, even though he was rarely on display. His fans include New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and actor Stephen Fry, who is in Wellington to film "The Hobbit".
For those suffering Happy Feet withdrawal, the bird will be fitted with a GPS tracker so researchers and the public can monitor his progress in the wild at www.wellingtonzoo.com.
Image: Eli Duke / via Flickr