The epic survival story of Happy Feet has captured hearts the world over, but the star was blissfully unaware of 1700 fans – some tearfully waving goodbye – who were there for the closing chapter.
For his final procedure in Wellington Zoo yesterday, the emperor penguin was sedated before having blood samples taken, a GPS transmitter attached to his feathers, and a final medical check before his voyage back to the wild.
Visitors were ushered past the viewing window in five-minute blocks, with cameras flashing as the heavily sedated penguin was pronounced fit for his four-day trip to sub-Antarctic waters today.
Isobel Caffery, 9, and her friend Liardet Anderson, 8, both watched while cuddling penguin soft toys.
"I just love Happy Feet," Isobel said. "It's just that he's come all this way, and it feels special because he came here ... to Wellington. We just hope he won't be eaten by a killer whale."
"Or eaten by a seal, there are some bad seals that really don't like penguins," Liardet added. "I'll be glad if he makes it home, but I'll be sad if he gets eaten."
Zoo veterinarian Lisa Argilla, who has tended to Happy Feet since his arrival from Antarctica in June, said he was one healthy bird.
"I'm pretty confident we've got him back to a good level of fitness, and he's ready to go out there and try and survive in the wild."
She would try not to cry when he left. "It's been very special for me, however ... I like the fact that we can get him back into the wild, it's very exciting."
It was likely Happy Feet would accidentally swim the wrong way when released from the boat, but his internal navigation should kick in shortly afterwards, she said. He could find friends quickly in the penguin-populated waters, which was good, because he would be ready to breed within a year.
The GPS transmitter would kick in once he was off the boat, and would stay in place for up to four months.
Wellington Hospital gastroenterologist John Wyeth, who performed an endoscopy on Happy Feet to remove sand from his stomach, credited Ms Argilla's determination and compassion for pulling Happy Feet through.
"She saved his life."
The farewell to Happy Feet was also beamed around the world. Australia's Nine Network flew a reporter over to cover the story.
- The Dominion Post