The global penguin – Part 6. Hitching a ride south

The global penguin – Part 6. Hitching a ride south

Te Papa’s curator of terrestrial vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly tells the sixth 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 is a member of the committee advising on the care and rehabilitation of the bird, and told the first five parts of its story in Te Papa blogs posted between 23 June and 22 July.

The emperor penguin at Wellington Zoo. Photo: Kate Baker, Wellington Zoo

It’s time to go! After nearly two months in care, a decision has been made on how the emperor penguin will be returned to subantarctic waters. After a satellite tag has been glued to his lower back, he will be 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.

The Tangaroa will be undertaking an acoustic survey of southern blue whiting fish stocks in the vicinity of Campbell Island during most of September. Campbell Island is the southernmost of New Zealand’s subantarctic islands; it lies at 52.5 degrees south, approximately 1100 km north of the maximum extent of the Antarctic pack ice. This is at the northern edge of the at-sea range of immature emperor penguins (see blog of 6 July).

Tangaroa – the pride of the NIWA fleet. Photo: NIWA

During the four or so days that the Tangaroa steams south from Wellington, the penguin will be cared for by Dr Lisa Argilla, veterinary science manager at Wellington Zoo, with assistance from NIWA staff. There will be no room on board for media, and so TV crews will have to say their farewells to the penguin on the wharf on 29 August. The release should be videoed, and we are hoping that Lisa and team will be able to relay the footage via a satellite link.

After his release on about 2 September, we should be able to follow the emperor penguin’s progress on both the Sirtrack and Our Far South websites (see blog of 11 July). I’ll provide URLs in a later blog, once the pages are up and running.

The satellite tag constructed and donated by Sirtrack. Photo: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

The satellite tag is not a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit. As partially explained on 11 July, the tag works by transmitting a signal every 45 seconds at times of the day when a polar orbiting satellite is passing overhead. In order to get an accurate fix (within a few hundred metres of where the bird is), the satellite needs to pick up four or more signals per pass. If fewer signals are detected, the penguin’s location will be determined with a lower level of accuracy (typically within a few kilometres of the correct position). The Sirtrack team have developed a programme to check the accuracy of the locations, and plot only those that are plausible and sufficiently accurate.

The location data should be accurate enough to tell if the penguin sets foot on any of the island groups in the southern ocean, but not with the level of precision that a more bulky GPS transmitter would provide.

The penguin has been experiencing polar conditions in Wellington, with the heaviest snowfall in decades gracing the city during 14-16 August, only three weeks after the coldest day ever recorded there. While Wellington residents shivered, the cold conditions cooled the small pool in the The Nest Te Kōhanga, the animal hospital at Wellington Zoo, allowing the penguin to have short swims on 25 July, and 14-20 August.

Taking to the water on 19 August. Photo: Saphira Brilliant Nrew

He is in great condition, weighing in at close to 27 kg. Allowing for the sand removed from his stomach and throat, this is about 6 kg more than when he was brought into care. It could be a rude shock for him to return to catching his own food after 2 months of being handfed young salmon!

The emperor penguin at Wellington Zoo. Photo: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa.

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

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

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

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

For later blogs on this bird:

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 too, have become obsessed with Happy Feet! I am wondering, do you think he swam all the way to NZ or could he have hitched a ride part of the way on an iceberg?

  2. I have been following this this story for some time. Based on my reading of the map, the Tangaroa appears to be heading north. Is there something that I don’t understand?

  3. Hi,

    I am not on Facebook, but I have been following Happy Feet since August 7th, when I saw a link on some other website.
    I have since become obsessed with him, to say the least.
    I have emailed Oprah Winfrey to see if she could somehow help finance a trip for Sir Happy Feet that would get him much closer than the 3000 or 4000 kilometres (1900 to 2500 miles) from his home than the one they are planning.

    (I tried to post a copy of my email to her on this blog, but it didn’t show up, so I tried again, and it said that I was posting an identical message, so I guess it wouldn’t take all that information.)

    Anyway, she really is a Saint, and I hope this helps him somehow.

    pappy 🙂

  4. Does anybody know if he is going to be released near an island? / with other penguins? Just asking due to “confusion” where I’ve read he’s being dropped off to an area with other juvenile penguins. then I’ve read where his release, just seems like he’d be by himself,,,,.. I’m hoping he will be around other penguins, & not alone, where his chances of survival would be better in numbers…. Thanks for your help,,

  5. Your welcome, fantastic blog Colin :0)

  6. Thanks the photo Saphira – now inserted in the blog!

  7. I was at the Zoo on Friday 19 August and was the only one to witness his very first swim of his own volition – it was truely awesome experience. Lasted about 2-3 minutes and have many photos of this event.

  8. ps. Returning to catching his food he’ll be in his element. Even pets, dogs, cats, and so on, change to a kind of “unknown creatures”, kind of “beasts,” when their hunting-instinct is awakened by the track of wild animals or by the movement of a mouse even after being handfed for some months or years. Perhaps Happy Feet some days will be a little hungry. But hunger is the worlds best hunter…. 😉

  9. Thanks again, Mr. Miskelly!

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