Wrong-way penguin lands on N.Z. beach

A young emperor penguin took a rare wrong turn from the Antarctic and ended up stranded on a New Zealand beach.
This young Antarctic emperor penguin took a rare wrong turn, but will need to head back to Antarctica to survive. (Richard Gill, Department of Conservation/Associated Press)

A young emperor penguin took a rare wrong turn from the Antarctic and ended up stranded on a New Zealand beach — the first time in 44 years the aquatic bird has been sighted in the wild in the South Pacific country.

Local resident Christine Wilton was taking her miniature schnauzer dog Millie for a walk on Peka Peka Beach on the North Island's western coast when she discovered the bird Monday evening.  

"It was out-of-this-world to see it … like someone just dropped it from the sky," Wilton said.

"It looked like Happy Feet — it was totally in the wrong place," Wilton said, referring to the 2006 animated musical featuring a young penguin who finds himself far from home.

Conservation experts say the penguin is about 10 months old and stands about 80 centimetres high. Colin Miskelly, a curator at Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, said the bird was likely born during the last Antarctic winter. It may have been searching for squid and krill when it took a wrong turn.  

Emperor penguins are the tallest and largest species of penguin and can grow up to 122 centimetres high and weigh more 34 kilograms.

Their amazing journey to breeding grounds deep in the Antarctic was chronicled in the 2005 documentary March of the Penguins, which highlighted their ability to survive the brutal winter.

Healthy, but disoriented

Miskelly said emperor penguins can spend months at a time in the ocean, coming ashore only to molt or rest. He doesn't know what might have caused this particular one to become disoriented.

Miskelly said the penguin appeared healthy and well-fed, with plenty of body fat, and probably came ashore for a rest.  

However, Miskelly said the penguin would need to find its way back south soon if it were to survive. Despite the onset of the New Zealand winter, the bird was probably hot and thirsty, he said, and it had been eating wet sand.    "It doesn't realize that the sand isn't going to melt inside it," Miskelly said. "They typically eat snow, because it's their only liquid."  

However, he said the bird was in no immediate danger from dehydration because Emperor penguins can also drink salt water in the summer.  

Peter Simpson, a program manager for New Zealand's Department of Conservation, said officials are asking people to stand back about 10 metres from the creature and to avoid letting dogs near it.  

Other than that, he said, officials plan to let nature take its course. Simpson said the bird could live several weeks before needing another meal.  

The last confirmed sighting of a wild Emperor in New Zealand was in 1967 at the southern Oreti Beach, Simpson said.  

Miskelly, the curator, said the bird appears to weigh about 10 kilograms — healthy for its age, but only about one-third of the weight the penguin would need to reach before it could survive a breeding cycle on the Antarctic ice.