He needed a little push before speeding backwards down a makeshift slide. Once in the water, he popped his head up for one last look, and then he was gone. The wayward emperor penguin known as Happy Feet was back home in Antarctic waters after an extended sojourn spent capturing hearts in New Zealand.
Happy Feet was released into the Southern Ocean south of New Zealand more than two months after he came ashore on a beach nearly 2,000 miles from home.
Lisa Argilla, a Wellington zoo vet who was aboard the research vessel Tangaroa, said Happy Feet's release went remarkably smoothly given that the boat was being tossed about in eight-metre (25ft) swells.
Crew members carried the penguin inside his custom-built crate to the stern of the ship for his final send-off. But when they opened the crate's door, the penguin showed no interest in leaving.
"I needed to give him a little a tap on his back," Argilla said.
The penguin slipped down the slide on his stomach, bottom first, she said. He resurfaced about two metres from the boat, took a look up at the people aboard, and then disappeared beneath the surface.
"I was really happy to see him go," Argilla said. "The best part of my job is when you get to release animals back into the wild where they are supposed to be."
Happy Feet was found on 20 June on Peka Peka beach, about 40 miles north-west of Wellington. It had been 44 years since an emperor penguin was last spotted in the wild in New Zealand.
At first, conservation authorities said they would wait and let nature take its course with the penguin. But it soon became clear the bird's condition was deteriorating, as he scooped up beaks full of sand and swallowed, possibly mistaking it for snow, which emperor penguins eat for its moisture in Antarctica.
Four days after he was discovered the penguin was moved to Wellington zoo where he underwent numerous stomach-flushing procedures to remove sand from his digestive system. He was given a makeshift home in a room that zoo staff kept filled with a bed of ice so he would not overheat.
A local television station, TV3, set up a webcam and streamed images of the bird around the clock. Soon, Happy Feet had 250,000 followers.
They will be able to keep track of him for a while longer: Happy Feet has been fitted with a GPS tracker, and his movements will be posted online. Argilla expects the tracker to fall off the next time the bird molts.
Argilla said the final boat journey, which began last Monday and ran into bad weather, was difficult for her – she got seasick – and the crew. The one who seemed least bothered, she said, was Happy Feet, who rolled with the swells, slept standing up and took nips at the crew when they fed him fresh fish.
Now that Happy Feet has been nursed back to health, Argilla said his chances were as good as for any other penguin in the wild.
"He swam away, not caring about us any more," Argilla said. "And that's a good thing."