A lucky Fiordland penguin/tawaki that is believed to have narrowly survived a shark attack has spent months in rehabilitation before being returned to the wild this week.

The female tawaki was found underweight and with several missing chest feathers last August in the hillside Christchurch suburb of Scarborough.

The penguin was attacked by a shark or other large predator, according to DOC.

DOC mahaanui biodiversity supervisor Craig Alexander said colonies of the penguins usually resided in South Westland and Stewart Island.

“The tawaki was a long way from home when we picked it up, they’re not a regular visitor to Christchurch shores,” Alexander said.

He said the penguin stayed in rehab until she fattened up and her feathers regrew, meaning she could go back to the wild.

“Based on the marks on the penguin’s chest, we think it’s likely she had a run-in with a shark or other large predator and made a narrow escape but was nicked by the predator’s teeth in the process.”

Standing about 60cm tall, tawaki typically have an impressive yellow crest of feathers starting from near the nostril and extending out the back of the head.

Kristina from Christchurch Penguin Rehabilitation said they never expected the tawaki to stay for four and a half months and that the suspected shark attack left two patches of damaged feathers and inflamed skin.

Injured tawaki in Christchurch Penguin Rehabilitation

“The South Island Wildlife Hospital made two attempts to remove the damaged feathers, to encourage new growth, but this was only partly successful – not enough feathers grew back to provide the fully waterproof plumage needed to survive in the wild.

“The only option was to wait for the natural annual moult, which finally started before Christmas. The tawaki developed an enormous appetite and gained a lot of weight, then the moult started in full.

“Feeding a penguin for more than four months needs a lot of fish, as she was eating up to 800g a day. Without the support from King Salmon and Akaroa Salmon, it would have been difficult to get fish of the right size.

“Now all the feathers have grown back and she has a beautiful new coat of feathers, the tawaki is ready to go back to the ocean.”

Following her long rehabilitation, Department of Conservation (DOC) fauna technical advisor Cassie Mealey picked up the bird from Hokitika Airport from an Air New Zealand flight and accompanied her as she was released into the wild.

“She drew quite the crowd at the small airport with people very interested in her story,” Mealey said.

“Opening up the cage on the beach for release, she immediately bolted out. She then became a bit shy, perhaps realising she was in an entirely unfamiliar place, however, after a bit of an explore, she found the water.

“With some encouragement she ran into the ocean, diving under waves and swimming nearby happily before disappearing out into the big blue.”

Mealey said the penguin is following behind another two tawaki which were released from Hokitika Beach together on December 13, after separately washing up a bit worse for wear in short succession.

Tawaki loaded to fly Christchurch to Hokitika

“When found, the birds — an adult and juvenile – were skinny, exhausted, missing their waterproof coating on the feathers, and one had lacerations to its flippers,” she said.

“The younger tawaki was sent to the South Island Wildlife Hospital for treatment to its flipper wounds, which were likely from barracuda bites.

“As an authorised wildlife rehabilitator, I cared for the adult tawaki in Hokitika with support through fish donations from the local New World and seafood company Solander.”

The DOC technical advisor said the tawaki were healthy, plump and fit enough to head back into the wild after four weeks of rest, rehydration, feeding and swim training.

Tawaki are found only in Aotearoa and are one of the rarest penguins in New Zealand, with an estimated population of only 2500-3000 breeding pairs.

Tawaki have a conservation status of “at risk – declining” in New Zealand.

Their main threats include human disturbances on the shoreline (including from dogs), introduced predators, climate change, and fishing bycatch. Anyone who comes across a sick or injured penguin in the wild has been urged to call the DOC Hotline.