Newspaper Article 2011 – The story behind Happy Feet’s hi-tech accessory

The story behind Happy Feet’s hi-tech accessory

Bob Brockie

THE penguin Happy Feet wears a Sirtrack radio-transmitter – a device with an interesting story. Back in the 1960s, envious New Zealand biologists read about American researchers tracking animals with radio transmitters, but we couldn’t buy one for love or money. By chance, one such American researcher stopped in Wellington en route from the Antarctic and showed Scientific and Industrial Research Department technician Dave Ward how to make one. Dave attached his radio to a possum in the Orongorongo Valley behind Wainuiomata in 1969 – the first animal to be radio-tracked in New Zealand. He attached radios to more possums and moreporks in the same bush.

In the 1980s, Dave Ward’s lab moved to Havelock North, where he continued improving and diversifying his skills and testing his gadgetry on farms near Bridge Pa. Among other things he and his team attached radios to 10 possums and 10 wild cats and tracked them for a year with some unexpected results. One possum migrated 25 kilometres away, another left Bridge Pa to live in the roof of Woodford House, the girl’s school in Havelock North, and a third was tracked to a walnut tree with a commanding view of the Queen the day she passed through Hastings. One of the cat’s radios was tracked to the mantelpiece of a gang house in Bridge Pa.

In 1986, the government told the DSIR that it had to earn 30 per cent of its running costs, so Dave and others formed themselves into a company to market their products. Minister Simon Upton closed down the DSIR altogether in 1992, but part of its name still survives in Sirtrack.

Working out of Havelock North, Sirtrack has boomed. The company now employs 40 staff and turns over about $5 million a year. Its transmitters have been attached to more than 700 animal species – from polar bears, moose, whales, seals, coyotes, lynx, snakes and crocodiles to eagles, kakapo and wetas. The radios have revealed some astonishing animal behaviour – albatrosses flying from New Zealand to South America and Africa and back, muttonbirds flying from America to New Zealand, swifts sleeping nights on the wing 2500 metres above Germany, a Queensland python swallowing a tree kangaroo, radio transmitter and all, and a rat swimming 400 metres to find a female on another Hauraki Gulf island.

Sirtrack donated Happy Feet his $3000 radio, and setting up automatic website and the like has cost the company another $20, 000. For six hours a day the penguin sends signals up to a French – American ARGOS pole-to pole satellite orbiting 750 kilometres overhead. Somebody has to pay for the transmitted data, and we are lucky to have Gareth  Morgan’s KiwiSaver pick up the tab.

The signals beam down to Havelock North and out again on Sirtrack’s popular site. There you can follow the penguin’s daily meanderings and exchange news with Happy Feet’s many supporters around the world.

More than 100,000 people hit that site daily with messages and prayers for the emperor’s safe return to the Antarctic. A Spaniard blogs “Hasta la Antarctica el Emperador”

Thanks to Dave Ward, Kevin Lay, Sandy Bartle, Drs Richard Sadleir and Collin Miskelly.

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Newspaper article

Date published

September 2011


Dominion Post


  • Bob Brockie
  • Dave Ward
  • Simon Upton
  • Kevin Lay
  • Sandy Bartle
  • Richard Sadleir
  • Collin Miskelly

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