"Happy Feet" is seen in his room at Wellington Zoo’s hospital on Aug. 28, 2011. (Liu Jieqiu/AP)

As he got onboard, the 3-foot-tall penguin looked at the hundreds gathered to see him off, “craned his head, flapped his flippers and seemed a little perturbed,” the AP reports.

Happy Feet was moved from the Wellington Zoo, where staff tended to him after he ate sand he likely mistook for ice, to the New Zealand research vessel Tangaroa. Onboard, the penguin will stay in a custom-made crate and dine on fish for four days before being released at sea at a latitude of 51 degrees south.

When the penguin arrived at Wellington Zoo, he had a low weight and was wearing few feathers. Veterinarians like Lisa Argilla helped nurse the wayward penguin back to health as zoo visitors followed his progress, watching him eat, sleep and waddle.

“He's brought a lot of hope and joy to people,” Karen Fifield, Wellington Zoo's chief executive, told the AP. “His story has driven to the heart of what makes us human.”

Happy Feet is now fitted with a GPS tracking system to monitor his progress, and by next year, will be old enough to find a mate and breed.