The real Happy Feet?

When life imitates animation. You probably know the story. In the movie Happy Feet (2006), the young Emperor penguin Mumble is banished from his colony for voicing concerns about aliens (ie. humans) being responsible for taking all the fish. Determined to prove a point, he swims north, encounters the fishing fleet and just keeps going.

Eventually Mumble washes up on sandy shores and is taken to a local zoo where he recovers his strength and is released with a sparkly new GPS tracking tag upon his back. He returns to the colony where conditions are now desperate and the younger penguins are ready to believe him. Alien scientists arrive to check on Mumble and witness the colony’s plea for help. They pass the message on to world leaders and after much debate, a global decision is made to stop harvesting in Antarctic waters. The fish stocks recover, and the penguins rejoice amongst a bounty of food.

This is where things get really interesting. On June 20 2011, a juvenile Emperor penguin was found alive, washed up on Peka Peka Beach, a stretch of coast not far from New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. Nicknamed ‘Happy Feet’ by the woman who found him, the penguin’s saga to date shares an uncanny resemblance to his animated counterpart.

After a few days on the beach, the penguin’s condition had deteriorated and a decision was made by the Department of Conservation to take him into the care of Wellington Zoo. The young penguin has proved to be a media star, with a number of people continuing to follow his progress through the TV3 webcam. He required several surgeries to clear his stomach of sand and sticks (consumed on the beach) but a month on he appears to be doing well and will be released once he reaches a healthy weight.

Due to costs and fears of unnecessary stress for the bird, taking Happy Feet all the way back to Antarctica is out of the question. Instead he will be fitted out with a tracking tag and released in sub-Antarctic waters. His real home is almost certainly in a colony in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica, 4,000 km directly south of New Zealand and where one-quarter of all Emperor penguins reside.

So how will the real Happy Feet’s story end? Will he make it all the way back to the Ross Sea? Will the aliens stop messing with his food chain??

Ultimately the questions over fishing in the Ross Sea fall upon the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (‘CCAMLR’ to those in the know). This is the global body who regulates harvesting in the waters around Antarctica. CCAMLR will be meeting in Hobart this November (and next) to decide the future of Happy Feet’s real home. Watch this space and get involved to have your say!

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