The global penguin – Part 3. No latitude for error: a young emperor penguin a long way from home

The global penguin – Part 3. No latitude for error: a young emperor penguin a long way from home

Te Papa’s curator of terrestrial vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly tells the third part of the unfolding story of the emperor penguin that went where none had gone before (at least in the age of digital media). Colin accompanied Department of Conservation staff to Peka Peka Beach on the morning of 21 June, and identified the bird just before the first journalists and media photographers arrived. He is also a member of the committee advising on the care and rehabilitation of the bird, and told the first two parts of its story in Te Papa blogs posted on 23 June and 29 June.

Wayward boy – the emperor penguin on Peka Peka Beach, 21 June. Photo: Colin Miskelly
Wayward boy – the emperor penguin on Peka Peka Beach, 21 June. Photo: Colin Miskelly

Some momentous news – it’s a boy! DNA tests of feathers collected from the Peka Peka emperor penguin have revealed that it is a male. Apart from the obvious (“No wonder he got lost – he wouldn’t stop to ask directions” quip), what does this tell us about why he wandered so far north?

In most seabirds, it is the females that are more adventurous, at least in terms of where they settle to breed compared to where they were raised – males are the stay-at-home sex. But that is in relation only to breeding sites. Many seabird species are highly migratory, in some cases travelling tens of thousands of kilometres between breeding seasons; and there is no consistent pattern for one sex to travel further than the other during these migrations.

Emperor penguins contemplating whether they could incubate eggs and raise chicks at sea. Photo: Barbara Wienecke
Emperor penguins contemplating whether they could incubate eggs and raise chicks at sea. Photo: Barbara Wienecke

Penguins are seabirds in the strictest sense. Many species come ashore only to breed (they haven’t yet figured out how to incubate a floating egg!) and then shortly afterwards return ashore for their annual moult, during which they lose their water-proofing for 2-3 weeks. Were it not for these earthly constraints, most penguins would spend their lives all at sea. And, with a few exceptions (and their annual moult), that is what juvenile penguins do.

Studying the at-sea distribution of young penguins presents many technical challenges. Australian and US-based researchers have attempted to study dispersal of emperor penguin chicks on their maiden journeys from their colonies, by glueing satellite transmitters to their lower backs. These transmitters emit signals, and if the bird happens to be on the sea surface or on an ice-floe when a satellite passes over, the location of the bird is ‘fixed’, and sent to the researcher via a webpage or an email.

Emperor penguin chick fitted with satellite transmitter. Photo: Barbara Wienecke
Emperor penguin chick fitted with satellite transmitter. Photo: Barbara Wienecke

These studies revealed that the young penguins leave the colonies in late December, and head north, beyond the pack-ice, into open ocean. By February-March they had reached up to 54° south (based on a combined sample of 33 birds), up to 1200 km north of the pack-ice. Then they turned south, and were back among the pack when their transmitter batteries failed 5-6 months after fledging.

We do not know in any detail where emperor penguins spend the next 4.5 years of their lives. The transmitters drop off when the birds moult about a year after they first go to sea. It is has long been assumed that emperor penguins stay in ice-congested waters during adolescence, where individuals are often seen. But penguins standing on ice-floes are a lot easier to see than penguins swimming in stormy Southern Ocean seas. Studying emperor penguins of this age group in any detail is almost impossible, because they don’t come ashore or onto fast-ice, so they cannot be readily caught to have satellite tags attached.

Emperor penguins swimming among pack-ice. Photo: Colin Miskelly
Emperor penguins swimming among pack-ice. Photo: Colin Miskelly

Occasional emperor penguins turn up further north, even as far as 41° south (i.e. Peka Peka Beach – the northernmost record known). As this was considered a natural event, the northern edge of emperor penguin distribution lies somewhere between 41° and 54° south – a trifling distance of 1500 kilometres!

So where should the Peka Peka penguin be released?

As just mentioned, the penguin’s arrival at Peka Peka is considered a natural event. If we were to adopt a minimal intervention approach, we would return the bird to the point where he arrived in good health 2 weeks ago. But Peka Peka is a dangerous place – there is sand everywhere, and we now know that emperor penguins and sand are not a good combination.

If we were to bow completely to Happy Feet sentimentality, the bird would be whisked south into the midst of the pack-ice, regardless of cost, logistic difficulties in the middle of the Antarctic winter, disease risks to other emperor penguins, discomfort to the bird, and whether or not he wanted to go south.

This bird swam north of its own volition. Do we have the right to tell it that it was wrong to do so? To follow this argument further, should we start returning all vagrant birds to their country of origin?

But then we mustn’t forget that penguins are almost human. Apart, that is, from feathers, and a propensity for eating sand. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of judging ordinary birds by the standards applied to penguins.

The Penguin Advisory Committee was unanimous in agreeing that the penguin be released into waters south of New Zealand. But that could be anywhere between 47° and 54° south – allowing 780 km of robust discussion!

Apart from the ethical question of whether we have the right to force our will over that of a voiceless penguin, other complications arise the further south we look. Firstly, a suitable boat needs to be found, preferably one that can take a large media contingent (at no cost to them). Large boats are very expensive, but are still uncomfortable in rough seas. Smaller boats may be more affordable, but there is less room for media, and they are no fun at all in rough seas – for people or penguins. We don’t know how susceptible emperor penguins are to motion sickness, and the eventual release site may yet be dictated by the bird’s immediate welfare rather than our wish to take it ever south in stormy subantarctic seas.

Wandering albatross over subantarctic seas. Photo: Colin Miskelly
Wandering albatross over subantarctic seas. Photo: Colin Miskelly

But when he takes that eventful plunge off the heaving deck into the welcoming sea, the world will be watching. Not only will at least one film crew have braved the ride, but the penguin will be carrying a satellite transmitter that will let you plot its daily progress from the comfort of your smart phone.

I had said that I would give you details of how to do so here, but have run out of words. Next blog, I promise.

Previous blogs on this topic:

The global penguin – Part 1. How a lone emperor ventured into superstardom

The global penguin – Part 2. The young emperor penguin pushes the boundaries and is taken into care

For later blogs on this bird:

The global penguin – Part 4. How to track a wandering emperor penguin

The global penguin – Part 5. The rocky road to fame

The global penguin – Part 6. Hitching a ride south

The global penguin – Part 7.  The wandering emperor penguin enters the technological age

The global penguin – Part 8. Free at last!

The global penguin – Part 9. Heading home, or heading east?

The global penguin – Part 10. It’s only a game

The global penguin – Part 11. How old was the Peka Peka emperor penguin?

The global penguin – Part 12. The final word?


  1. I just want to know how many emperor penguins are in NZ thats what i searched

    1. Author

      Kia ora Ngarangi

      As far as we know, only the two emperor penguins have ever reached the New Zealand coast, in 1967 and 2011. See details here: Emperor penguin

      Kind regards

  2. Thanks for this brilliant humorous article. I’m a very interested follower of the happy-feet-story, consequently I learn much about penguins. E. g. now I know, that King Penguin has naked feet whereas Emperor Penguin has feathered feet. And I did not know that penguins prefered staying their whole lives in water if they had the choice. It’s calming my nerves because it enhances the chance of Happy Feet’s survival even if he swam to the wrong direction.

    By the way, perhaps Happy Feet went 1.500 miles north, then wanted to turn back to the south but got a bump on his head (e. g. a collision with a friend) and in confusion went another 1.500 miles north as a consequence. 😉

  3. According to records Polar bears have been visiting Iceland for the last millennia, generally hitching a ride on convenient drifting ice floes. I guess they just want to travel south for the winter and it’s too far to fly.

  4. certainly not Murray- what about the polar bears that have been found in iceland…?

  5. Is finding ‘Happy Feet’ all the way North at Peka Peka beach definitive proof of Global Cooling?

  6. What a wonderful blog post. So interesting and such humour and compassion. Thanks Colin to you and everyone concerned who have shown such humanity in dealing with this elegant, noble creature who grabbed hold of my heart when I saw him on Peka Peka Beach exactly 2 weeks ago and hasn’t let go since!

    Rachael McCleave

  7. What a majestic looking bird, am pleased that he has made the news, so that we can learn from him… nothing special about the beach he landed on… but what a long swim he had to get here.. often wondered if the school children could be involved with photographs of him, perhaps a fund raising idea.. I mentioned Happy Feet to my email friend in Somerset, she said nothing on him on their news… she is like me, likes the wild birds..insects etc… cant wait to see him returned to his homeland eventually…thank you.

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