WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A young emperor penguin won't be getting a free ride all the way back to its Antarctic home, but its human friends in New Zealand will help it get a little closer.
The penguin is recovering well at Wellington Zoo, where it underwent a medical procedure on Monday to flush out much of the beach sand it swallowed, apparently mistaking it for snow.
It may need a few months to recover, but wildlife officials have been trying to figure out how the 3-foot (80 centimeter) -tall bird will return home. Transporting it to Antarctica is near-impossible in the southern winter, and there are fears the penguin may have acquired infections in the warmer New Zealand environment that could spread to other penguins.
On Wednesday, an advisory group headed by the Department of Conservation decided officials will help the penguin get part of the way home by releasing it into the Southern Ocean, southeast of New Zealand – and letting it swim the rest of the way.
"The reason for not returning the penguin directly to Antarctica is that emperor penguins of this age are usually found north of Antarctica on pack ice and in the open ocean," the department's biodiversity spokesman Peter Simpson said.
The bird is estimated at about 2 1/2 years old, a juvenile in a species that reaches breeding age around 4 or 5. It will be released on the northern edge of the region where young emperor penguins are known to live. Simpson said he was unsure how far the penguin would have to swim before reaching its final destination.
The logistics for the trip haven't been set, and the penguin won't be released until it has recovered, which may be months. Until then, it will remain at the zoo.
The penguin – affectionately dubbed Happy Feet – drew intense interest after being spotted June 20 on North Island's Peka Peka Beach, about 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) from the Antarctic coast. It was the first emperor spotted in the wild in New Zealand in 44 years.
The bird appears to be doing well Wednesday and is isolated in an air-conditioned room filled with large blocks of ice, zoo spokeswoman Kate Baker said.
After an edoscopy was performed Monday, X-rays show the rest of the sand the penguin ate was passing naturally, she said. It's also been more active and eating fish, zoo officials have said.
"The plan from now on is to let him rest, feed him and X-ray him again on Friday or Saturday to see how much sand has passed," Baker said.
Happy Feet's gender hasn't been confirmed, which requires a DNA test.