Antarctica: Emperor Penguins at Scott Base
Where has Happy Feet gone? We may never know. Image: eliduke/Flickr/CC BY-SA

Happy Feet, the emperor penguin who captured the world’s headlines when he came ashore in New Zealand in June, has gone missing. A tracking device, which was attached to the penguin before his release, shut down on Friday. Some fear Happy Feet may have become prey for a larger predator.

2,000 miles off course

Named after the popular animated film, Happy Feet became a celebrity in June when he got confused about his course and landed at Peka Peka beach in New Zealand instead of in Antarctica. The bird was ill from eating sand, which experts believe he mistook for snow. He was nursed back to health over the summer at the Wellington Zoo.

Released back into the ocean

Happy Feet was released on Sept. 4 from a research ship that took him about a quarter of the way from New Zealand to Antarctica. The flightless bird was fitted with a tracking device designed to keep a record of his progress for several months.

Transmitter stopped sending

The tracking device showed Happy Feet swam in a meandering fashion typical of penguins looking for fish. He had traveled about 75 miles by Friday morning, just five days after his release, when the transmitter stopped transmitting.

Could have become prey

Penguins have many predators in the open sea, including large sharks, seals and killer whales. Kevin Lay of Sirtrack, the firm that fitted the device, said:

“There are some species that will forage on emperor penguins. It’s not likely that it has happened to Happy Feet because of the area he was in.”

But it is possible the device simply fell off. Peter Simpson of New Zealand’s department of conservation said:

“Who knows? He’s probably swimming along quite happily without a transmitter on his back.”

Second tracking device

There was a second tracking device, a transponder chip, placed under the bird’s skin. That device could be picked up by a  penguin monitoring station in Antarctica, if Happy Feet ever gets close enough to it. He is believed to be only 3 years old, so if he is alive, it may be a year or two before he returns to Antarctica to mate.

‘Time to harden up’

“It’s unlikely that we will ever know what caused the transmission to cease,” said New Zealand penguin expert Colin Miskelly. “It is time to harden up to the reality that the penguin has returned to the anonymity from which he emerged.”


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