Happy Feet has every chance of finding his mates when he gets back to Antarctica, a penguin expert says.
The 3-year-old emperor penguin has been nursed back to health by Wellington Zoo staff since he washed up in June on a Kapiti Coast beach and is ready to go back to the Antarctic.
Today Happy Feet will begin the first leg of his long journey home on board the Niwa research vessel Tangaroa for the first four days of its month-long, 700km journey south to the Campbell Islands.
Yesterday hundreds of fans queued to get one last look and said goodbye at a Haere Ra Happy Feet party where guests dressed in black and white.
Hundreds had signed a farewell card for Happy Feet, leaving "sweet" messages, Wellington Zoo spokeswoman Kate Baker said.
"It was really lovely to see how many people came out to support us."
Professor John Cockrem, a penguin expert from Massey University, said Happy Feet would be released at the upper range of where other juvenile emperor penguins would be at this time of year.
"The 2 to 4-year-olds generally head to sea before returning to Antarctica to breed at four or five years of age."
The area where Happy Feet is to be released is far enough south to meet the sea currents that will steer him towards Antarctica, according to Dr Cockrem.
"Any further north and he may just swim north again towards the South Island."
Dr Cockrem said once Happy Feet returned to the water, he would have the same chances of survival as any other emperor penguin making its way back to Antarctica.
A refrigerated crate will keep the penguin cold enough and safe during turbulent weather.
Wellington Zoo raised $29,000 for Happy Feet's care, which covered the cost of having him at the zoo and shipping him home.
Yesterday he was given a general anesthetic before having a satellite tracking device attached so people can follow his progress on the Sirtrack website and the Our Far South website.
Since he arrived at Peka Peka Beach, he has had four operations, including two to have sand and sticks removed from his stomach.
- additional reporting NZPA