WELLINGTON, New Zealand – He's healthy, well-fed and far from home. And he's quickly become the most popular attraction on a New Zealand beach. If only he could talk.
A young penguin apparently took a wrong turn while swimming near Antarctica and endured a 2,000-mile journey to New Zealand, the first time in 44 years that one of the creatures has been sighted here in the wild.
Christine Wilton was walking her dog Monday when she discovered the black-and-white bird.
"It was out-of-this-world to see it," she said. "Like someone just dropped it from the sky."
Wilton said the scene on Peka Peka Beach reminded her of the 2006 movie "Happy Feet," in which a young penguin finds himself stranded far from home.
The bird "was totally in the wrong place," she said.
Estimated to be about 10 months old and 32 inches (80 centimeters) tall, the Emperor penguin was probably born during the last Antarctic winter and may have been searching for squid and krill when it got lost, experts said.
Emperors are the tallest and largest species of penguin. They can grow up to 4 feet (122 centimeters) tall and weigh more than 75 pounds (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 — and breed — despite the region's brutal winter.
Emperor penguins can spend months at a time in the ocean, coming ashore only to molt or rest, said Colin Miskelly, a curator at Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand. He did not know what might have caused this particular one to become disoriented.
The penguin appeared healthy and well-fed, with plenty of body fat. He probably came ashore for a rest, Miskelly said.
However, he added, the penguin needs to find its way back south soon if it is to survive. Despite the onset of the New Zealand winter, the bird is probably hot and thirsty, 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.
A small group of people, mostly parents with children, gathered Monday to watch the penguin on the beach on North Island's western coast. Some photographed him as he stood quietly on the sand or lay in the surf.
Peter Simpson, a program manager for New Zealand's Department of Conservation, said officials are asking onlookers to stand back about 30 feet (10 meters) 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.
This time, the bird appears to weigh about 22 pounds (10 kilograms) — healthy for its age, but only about one-third of the weight a penguin would need before it could survive a breeding cycle on the Antarctic ice, Miskelly said.