No free ride home for penguin lost in New Zealand

There will be no free ride back to Antarctica for a young penguin who defied the odds by swimming all the way to New Zealand. The trip could spread infections, authorities say, and there's no way to transport the animal this time of year.

Wildlife officials said Wednesday they will let "nature take its course" after the Emperor penguin ended up on picturesque Peka Peka Beach on New Zealand's North Island — 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) from Antarctic waters — in the country's first sighting of the bird in the wild in 44 years.

The penguin could have caught a disease by swimming through warmer climes, and wildlife officials would not want to be responsible for introducing illnesses into the insulated Antarctic penguin colony, said Peter Simpson, a program manager for New Zealand's Department of Conservation.

Then there are the logistics.

Right now, it is dark almost 24 hours a day in Antarctica. Virtually no one travels there this time of year, Simpson said, and even if they did, there would be no simple way to transport and cool a bird that stands almost three 3 feet (1 meter) high and is well insulated with fat.

Wildlife officials say the penguin has been eating wet sand, likely mistaking it for snow, and Simpson said its plight has sparked entreaties from around the world asking New Zealand to help the penguin get home since it was spotted by a resident on Monday.

"We are going to let nature take its course," he said. "It roamed here naturally. What is wrong with that?"

Simpson said he hopes the bird will find its own way back — particularly as it starts to become hungry. The penguin appears healthy and well fed, he added, and may not need another meal for several weeks.

The unusual bird attracted all sorts of attention at the beach Wednesday. School groups visited, television crews took footage, and onlookers snapped photos and even sketched it.

The penguin has been resting on the sand throughout the day but apparently has been taking to the water at night, Simpson said.

Experts don't know if the bird is a male or female — because the two sexes are almost indistinguishable among Emperor penguins.

The tallest and largest species of penguin, Emperors typically spend their entire lives in Antarctica. 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.

Christine Wilton was walking her dog Monday when she discovered the bird and called conservation authorities. She said it seemed a little more lethargic Wednesday than earlier in the week but was still alert and appeared unfazed by all the attention.

"It looks really grand when it stands up," she said. "I hope it stays safe, I really do, because it is just too precious."

Estimated to be about 10 months old, the penguin probably was born during the last Antarctic winter and may have been searching for squid and krill when it got lost, experts said.

Emperors can grow up to 4 feet (122 centimeters) tall and weigh more than 75 pounds (34 kilograms) . They can spend months at a time in the ocean. It's unclear how this one became disoriented, but it likely came ashore for a rest, said Colin Miskelly, a curator at Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand.

It needs to find its way south to cooler waters if it is to survive. He said Emperor penguins can drink salt water, but eat snow in the winter to hydrate themselves.

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