Hope yet for Happy Feet fans
A New Zealand penguin expert believes it is unlikely a predator has killed Happy Feet.
The rescued emperor penguin's satellite transmitter stopped sending a signal on Friday, a week after he was released into the Southern Ocean.
Happy Feet, who was found ailing on the Kapiti Coast eating sticks and sand, received months of specialist care, and tens of thousands of dollars of donations, before he was deemed well enough to return to the sea.
After his transmitter failed it was believed either the tracker - which was glued on to his wing - had fallen off or the penguin may have been eaten by a bigger animal.
However, Associate Professor John Cockrem, from the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, thought it was highly likely Happy Feet was still alive.
"Of the natural predators, leopard seals would be far further south, around the Antarctic continent, at this time," he says.
"I also think the chances of meeting an orca are pretty small."
Cockrem, an expert in New Zealand birds, penguins and Antarctica, said it was most likely the transmitter has fallen off.
"Over time the penguin would slowly make his way back to Antarctica, but we could not guess his course or time of arrival there."
Yesterday, wildlife telemetry consultant Kevin Lay, from animal tracking company Sirtrack, said data had not been received after Happy Feet travelled 115km in a southeasterly direction from his release point.
Lay said it was possible the transmitter, attached to his feathers with superglue, had fallen off.
Although this was not uncommon when tracking penguins, the company had believed the device would remain on Happy Feet for the next few months before he moulted.
"The other possibility that no-one wants to think about is that something in the food chain bigger than Happy Feet had him for a meal. That's what makes the world go round."
The transmitter had been working perfectly, sending strong signals and showing no sign of electrical faults before the signal suddenly disappeared.
Conservation Department Kapiti biodiversity programme manager Peter Simpson, who was on the penguin advisory committee that established what to do with Happy Feet, said he could still end up at a penguin colony in Antarctica one day and people should rest assured he had been returned to his natural environment.
Simpson stood by the decision that had been made to remove Happy Feet from Peka Peka beach.
Releasing him had been the right thing to do, and Happy Feet had helped raise public awareness about wildlife.
"It's learning about the natural world, it's not about singing, dancing penguins."
Te Papa terrestrial vertebrates curator Colin Miskelly said it was hard to know whether or not the awareness Happy Feet raised would be transferred to other species or conservation issues.
Though it might never be known what happened to Happy Feet, he had been given better opportunities than penguins in the natural world.
"There are bigger things out there with bigger teeth."
Wellington Zoo vet Lisa Argilla said Happy Feet was an ambassador for his species and had raised awareness of conservation issues around the world. More than $30,000 had been spent on the penguin.
"That makes every cent spent worthwhile."